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Global problem: Too few toilets

There are more mobile phones on Earth than clean toilets, one of the most vexing challenges facing governments on the 20th anniversary of the United Nations’ World Water Day.

Solving that developmental dilemma has confounded leaders, some of whom met Friday in The Hague to discuss water cooperation. There are 6 billion mobile phones, according to the International Telecommunication Union, while 1.2 billion of the planet’s 7 billion people lack clean drinking water and 2.4 billion aren’t connected to wastewater systems.

The most vulnerable – whether in China, India or sub-Saharan Africa – may be the young that must survive poor-quality or insufficient water while supplies are overused in other countries such as the United States, said Maxime Serrano Bardisa, a water analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance in London.

An American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the average person in a developing-country slum uses for an entire day, according to BNEF.

Statistics show at least one in three people don’t have a toilet. More people die from diseases caused by not having a clean, safe place to go to the bathroom than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Almost three-quarters of all diseases in India are caused by water contaminants.

“One of the biggest reasons for child mortality is water sanitation, we are still very underserved when it comes to water sanitation facilities,” Andreas Lindstrom, program manager at the Stockholm International Water Institute, said at a conference in Vina del Mar, Chile. “It’s still more risky to go to the bathroom in many countries than any other activity.”

The world’s population is three times larger now than it was in 1950.

In the past 40 years, water use has doubled, Karla Canavan of Bunge Environmental Markets told the Prana Sustainable Water conference Friday in Geneva.

With fresh water unevenly distributed across the world, businesses as varied as beverage companies, power utilities and the agricultural industry face challenges securing access to the resource, BNEF’s Serrano Bardisa said.

Increased water consumption and failure to manage the resources available may have “significant” economic effects, according to Paul Street, director of sustainable solutions at Black & Veatch Ltd., an infrastructure company.

“Water is central to our well-being and prosperity, and it is finite.”

Ninety gallons of water are needed to grow 1 pound of corn, and 40 barrels of water are required to produce one barrel of oil, Street said. It takes 3,000 gallons of water to make a quarter-pound burger, Black & Veatch data show. The average water footprint per calorie for beef is 20 times larger than for cereals and starchy roots.

The nexus of food, energy and water is the most important water issue, SIWI’s Lindstrom said.

“It’s not only providing basic services,” he said. “If we continue to consume the way we do, we will not have the water to cater to all these different needs.”

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