Yes, water can kill!

A couple of years ago, Sun, Star Cebu published a story of some residents of the town of Algeria being hospitalized due to typhoid fever; a few of them reportedly died.

Despite this, town officials refused to blame the water as the cause of the typhoid fever outbreak, as there were others who were hospitalized and yet they had drunk from other sources.

Typhoid or enteric fever is a life-threatening illness caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhi.  “Worldwide, typhoid fever affects more than 21 million people annually, with about 200,000 people dying from the disease,” the web site,, reports.

“Typhoid fever is contracted by drinking or eating the bacteria in contaminated food or water. People with acute illness can contaminate the surrounding water supply through stool, which contains a high concentration of the bacteria,” the web site says. “Contamination of the water supply can, in turn, taint the food supply. The bacteria can survive for weeks in water or dried sewage.

Both ill persons and carriers shed the bacteria in their stools.  One famous case involved a woman who was a cook for a family on Long Island in the US.  Typhoid infections occurred among the members of this family, and an investigation showed that Mary, the cook, was a chronic carrier of typhoid.

Life, as we know it, is useless without water.  As Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, Hungarian biochemist and Nobel Prize winner for medicine, puts it, “Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”

“Water is the most precious asset on Earth,” says Dr. Sandra Postel, director of the Massachusetts-based Global Water Policy Project.  “It is the basis of life.”

Ideally, a person should have at least 50 liters of water each day to meet his basic needs—for drinking, food preparation, cooking and cleaning up, washing and personal hygiene, laundry and house cleaning.

When there is a shortage of water, the Jekyll-and-Hyde paradox comes alive: from giving life, water turns into a “killing machine”.  Dr. Klaus Toepfer, during his term as executive director of the Nairobi-based UN Environment Program, said, “Unlike the energy crisis, the water crisis is life threatening.”

Contaminated water causes 90 percent of cases of diarrhea among children.  Acute diarrhea is one of the five leading causes of sickness and death among Filipino children—for every 100,000 live births, 914 die of diarrhea, leading to almost 12,000 infant deaths every year from a preventable and easily curable illness.

“I understood when I was just a child that without water, everything dies,” Marq de Villiers once observed.

Other common water-related and water-borne diseases are malaria, dengue fever, filariasis, typhoid fever, dysentery, cholera, hepatitis A and schistosomiasis.

In his column, Michael M. Alunan wrote, “Due to the lack of water, about 55 Filipinos die daily because of dirty water.  The National Sewerage and Septage Management Program itself reports that 55 Filipinos die daily because over 90 percent of sewage is not collected or treated. And only 10 percent of the population has access to piped-sewage systems.”

The notion that water can carry disease first occurred to the ancient Greeks.  The physician Hippocrates, the ancient innovator of medical ethics, advised that polluted water be boiled or filtered before being consumed.

Today’s crisis in water and sanitation is—above all—a crisis of the poor,” says the UN Development Program study, ‘Beyond Scarcity’: Power, Poverty and the Water Crisis.  In Tawi-Tawi province, 82 out of every 100 residents lack safe water. (Compare that with three in Bataan province and 39 in Capiz.)  It is obscene “if people cannot drink water without courting disease or death”, Postel wrote in The Last Oasis.

“Bad water quality is major cause of diseases in the Philippines,” read one headline.  Studies worldwide have shown that programs to encourage the habit of washing of hands with soap can reduce diarrhea by between 30 percent and 50 percent.

In the Philippines, surveys showed that nearly all people regularly wash their hands before eating.  But only 26 percent of households regularly wash their hands before handling and preparing food, and less than 50 percent regularly wash their hands after going to the toilet.

The majority of the health burden from water pollution, poor sanitation and hygiene is due to contact with human waste, a single gram of which can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, and 1 million parasite cysts, according to Global Water Foundation.

“All of these diseases are associated with our failure to provide clean water,” observed Peter H. Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security “I think it’s terribly bleak, especially because we know what needs to be done to prevent these deaths. We’re doing some of it, but the efforts that are being made are not aggressive enough.”

“Water is fundamental for life and health,” the UN Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights said. “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite to the realization of all other human rights.”

“You cannot wash filthy water,” the Arab proverb says.  A World Bank report said that studies of groundwater quality in some parts of the country found 58 percent of the sampled groundwater were tested positive for coliform bacteria.  Surveys done by some local government units have indicated that one half or more of their public water systems do not meet drinking water-quality standards.

“Water, water everywhere,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, “but not a drop to drink.”

Only 2.5 percent of the water that covers over 70 percent of the earth’s surface is considered fresh water.  And only 1.3 percent is available for human use since most of the freshwater are trapped in glaciers, ice sheets, and mountainous areas.  Fresh water is drawn either from wells (tapping underground sources called aquifers) or from surface flows (like lakes, rivers, and man-made reservoirs).

“Whiskey’s for drinkin’,” Mark Twain once wrote.  “But water is for fightin’ over.”  Sir Crispin Tickell, one of the organizers of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, agreed: “The world has got a very big water problem.  It will be the progenitor of more wars than oil.”

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