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Safe water for all*
The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg
determined that the issue of water management is a critical one for the planet.
In poor regions of the Third World, unsafe water produces social, economic and
health problems, including such chronic fatal diseases as Hepatitis, Typhoid
Fever or Cholera. Clearly, the lack of access to safe drinking water poses a
serious health threat. Latin American countries are particularly affected by
this problem, and mortality and disease from the consumption of unsafe water
is very high, particularly in rural and isolated zones. Thirty percent of the
population of many Latin American countries lives in areas with fewer than
2,500 inhabitants, generally in conditions of extreme poverty. Without
economic or technological support from the state, residents use river, spring,
well and pond water, all of which are highly contaminated. The situation is
more pronounced in agricultural and ranching regions where toxic insecticides
and chemical fertilizers have been used for extended periods of time.
The presence of arsenic in groundwater is a problem affecting many countries of the region. Very high levels of this dangerous contaminant have been detected in Argentina, Mexico and Chile. In fact, Argentina and Mexico have been ranked third in the world for having the highest affected populations. In Argentina, the arsenic comes from natural sources, while in Mexico a great portion stems from mining activities. Areas in northern Chile (Arica) are plagued not only with arsenic from natural origins and from copper mining, but from water shortages as well.
For inhabitants living below the poverty line, the traditional method of boiling water to ensure its safety is not a viable solution due to the lack of possible energy sources and to the possibility of creating fire hazards. In addition, boiling water is not an effective means of eliminating arsenic or other heavy metals, or organic recalcitrant compounds. Other methods of treating water are extraordinarily expensive. From data provided by the FAO, the cost of eliminating one ton of insecticides runs between $3,500-4,000. For this reason, simple, efficient and low-cost technologies must be developed to eliminate these substances.
As the aforementioned points illustrate, problems regarding water management differ in scale and complexity and are heightened by the lack of well-established techniques for disinfection and decontamination. To begin to tackle such a large variety of problems, innovative, economical and socially accepted procedures are required. Increasing the knowledge of Latin American professionals in the field through short and long-term training should be an important objective. Having available low-cost technologies for producing safe water in remote zones of Latin America is key to resolving the issue and to alleviating the dramatic situations encountered in the region.
The creation of simple, small-scale solar photoreactors based on new technologies could be effective in treating low levels of wastewater and for creating safe drinking water in small inhabited areas. Distance learning would also be useful to offer ongoing training for researchers and professionals, using new information and communication technologies.?
Dra. Marta Litter, Argentina
Project "Economical Technologies for Disinfecting and
Decontaminating Water in Rural Zones of Latin America"
*The ideas, thoughts, and opinions expressed are not necessarily of the OAS nor of its member states. The opinions expressed are the responsibility of the authors.