Access to an abundance of clean water has been pivotal for the public health miracle that has taken place in rich countries. The western world's water supply infrastructures enables people to get the water they need to stay healthy, and has undoubtedly played a big role in life expectancy shooting up in the last century. But in the developing world, adequate water supply has completely fallen off the agenda. Instead, environmental health for poorer countries has come to mean only provision of some clean drinking water and latrines. But the copious supplies of clean water that allow hygienic conditions – and therefore public health – to be maintained are no longer seen as a priority for the world's poorest.
The reason? The prevailing doctrine that we have to save water and energy at all costs is to blame. This has been a disaster for the poorest people in the world, in preventing them from developing the electricity grids that are essential for adequate water and sewage supplies. The Paris climate treaty was just the latest step in the wrong direction, pushing hopes for water supply development still further out of reach for those who need it most. And the apparent focus of the World Health Organisation on climate change – rather than more primary healthcare needs – is symbolic of this abandonment of the poor.
The latest insult to the developing world comes in the shape of a recent report in the Lancet. Published in October, this delivered the stark warning that ‘pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today', and that nine million people each year die as a result. This led some to argue that a moratorium on new fossil-fuel-based energy infrastructure – in particular coal-fired power plants – and an expansion of wind and solar energy, were badly needed. This would, it was claimed, result in spectacular public health gains to the developing world. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of those deaths in fact have less to do with pollution and more to do with a lack of hygiene and a shortfall in proper water supplies. Yet as a result of the reaction to the report, adequate electricity and water supplies have now arguably been pushed further out of reach for developing countries. The obsession with pollution is doing great damage.
Of course, for those fortunate enough to live in wealthy countries, proper water supplies can be taken for granted – making the moral high ground with conserving energy easier to take. In California, for example, many green-fingered residents take great pride in their environmentalism. They are happy to condemn President Trump’s decision to bail out of the Paris climate agreement, and to lecture others on inequality and environmental impact. Yet like the pigs in George Orwell’s great novel Animal Farm, some people are more equal than others, and Californians are considerably more equal than most, particularly when it comes to water use. Even during the drought of 2015, and under what were called 'severe water restrictions', urban Californians per capita daily usage of water was brought down to 600 litres. Brits use much less water than that on average – but every person in the UK still manages to get through around 150 litres a day.
Meanwhile, poor people in the developing world desperately require access to abundant supplies of clean water for everyday needs. More than one in six people worldwide do not get the minimum amount of water (20 - 50 litres) the UN suggests is needed for drinking, cooking and cleaning. Yet environmentalists would rather posture and lecture us about climate change than focus on the fact that for developing countries, this obsession comes at the price of people continuing to go without adequate water supplies.
Professor Mikko Paunio's latest paper, ‘Sacrificing the Poor’, can be read here