"Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."
More than 200 years ago, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned those poignant words in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to describe the plight of sailors adrift in a small boat in the midst of the salty ocean. Shockingly, if current trends continue, increasing millions of people on land will soon be joining in this refrain.
"Safe water is essential for health, yet remains one of the most critical problems facing the world today," says Kenneth Behring of the Global Health and Education Foundation. Behring's organization recently gave a $600,000 grant to the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences, for the development of a Web-based resource to educate the world's decision-makers about what can be done to meet the world's growing demand for safe drinking water.
"One out of every five people lacks access to clean drinking water. We must create innovative, sustainable approaches that can make a significant impact on the world's water crisis," says Behring.
With its grant, the Koshland Science Museum created an exhibit titled "Safe Drinking Water Is Essential." The exhibit was released on DVD, and the Web site www.drinking-water.org hosts an online version. It surveys a range of strategies and technologies for increasing the quality and quantity of drinkable water worldwide.
International experts agree that humanity is facing a global water crisis, yet all the efforts being expended to solve the problem are no more than "a drop in the ocean." In this modern age of air travel, water-borne diseases in any part of the world can easily be transmitted to another continent in a matter of hours. In the days of ocean travel, a contagious passenger often became ill and either recovered or died before reaching the ship's destination, thus slowing or stopping the spread of water-borne infection. Today, however, a traveler can be half way around the world, even before exhibiting any symptoms or actually becoming ill from drinking polluted water, thus endangering populations living far from the source of the infection.
Contaminants are substances that make water unsafe to drink—and sometimes even unfit for bathing. Some contaminants can easily be identified by taste, odor or appearance. But most cannot be detected without special equipment, so testing is needed to show whether a water source is contaminated. Left unchecked, contaminated water supplies can cause a range of water-related diseases that can take a terrible toll on human health, and often can even cause death!
Some contaminants are organisms like bacteria, viruses, and parasites such as microscopic protozoa. These tiny living entities are spread through contact with human and animal waste. Good sanitation and personal hygiene can help prevent the spread of these organisms.
Other contaminants are the man-made byproducts of industry and agriculture, such as heavy metals like lead and mercury, and toxic chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers.
Even some naturally occurring elements can contaminate water. Arsenic is present at dangerously high levels in the water supplies of some Asian countries, particularly Bangladesh and India, where more than 100 million people regularly consume water tainted with toxic levels of the contaminant.
Unless it is treated, contaminated water is not safe to drink. Some communities use centralized water treatment facilities, where a wide range of technologies can be used to purify drinking water. In many poorer areas, any treatment must occur at the point of use.
Wealthy nations in the industrialized West have many affordable options for water treatment. But what happens when those nations do not apply the available options? The town of Alamosa, Colorado, found out earlier this year. Last March, salmonella somehow entered the city's water supply. Within a week of the March 8 discovery, about 250 of the town's 10,000 residents had become ill, with many of those illnesses confirmed as salmonella poisoning. For several days, even bathing was off-limits. Crews had to flush the city's waterworks with massive quantities of chlorine to kill the bacteria and restore the city's access to clean water.
Alamosa is not alone; millions of other Americans must cope with less dramatic—but just as serious—contamination of their water supply. A recent Associated Press report showed that 41 million Americans receive tap water containing "a vast array of pharmaceuticals" (March 9, 2008). Antibiotics, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones were found in U.S. water supplies, along with over-the-counter drugs such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
Utilities insist that their water is safe, and say only minute traces of these chemicals reach the public, but some scientists are alarmed about the consequences for human health over the long term. Drugs find their way into the water supply when people eliminate the substances through toilets into sanitation systems. After the sewage water is treated, and then is released into reservoirs, rivers or lakes, municipal and private waterworks then treat and pipe it to consumers as potable water. Researchers do not know the precise risk people are facing from decades of exposure to these chemicals, but recent studies have found alarming effects on human cells and on wildlife. "We recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it very seriously," says Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The U.S. government does not have any regulations for, nor does it require testing of, the amounts of drug residue in the nation's water supply.
Without treatment, an increasing number of the world's rivers, lakes and reservoirs are becoming unsafe as sources for drinkable water. A surprising number of water sources are even too dangerous for recreational use. Each year, even in North America, some beaches are closed to swimmers because of toxic water conditions.
Toxic water is a problem, but what can be done when there is no toxic water to treat? Drought is becoming a key factor in the shortage of potable water for the world's billions. When arid regions become un-farmable, and then unlivable, populations are forced to move away. These migrations in turn create political problems that can place an unbearable strain on already limited water supplies. One example of this phenomenon is found in the Middle East's Jordan River Valley, where Syria, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians are facing the double-consequences of overuse and drought. People in that region are already living on the constant edge of armed conflict—drought and water shortage in this volatile region can only increase the likelihood of all-out war.
Governments and relief agencies will continue to strive to provide clean water for the world's growing population. But will they succeed? God's word warns us of what will occur—sooner than many of us may expect: "'I also withheld rain from you, when there were still three months to the harvest. I made it rain on one city; I withheld rain from another city. One part was rained upon, and where it did not rain the part withered. So two or three cities wandered to another city to drink water, but they were not satisfied; yet you have not returned to Me,' says the Lord" (Amos 4:7–8).
To shake sinning mankind out of its complacency, God even now is beginning to withdraw His blessing of ample rain in due season. "Therefore the heavens above you withhold the dew, and the earth withholds its fruit. For I called for a drought on the land and the mountains, on the grain and the new wine and the oil, on whatever the ground brings forth, on men and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands" (Haggai 1:10–11).
Will human beings repent? Individually, yes, many will. You can turn to God and be spared much suffering in the years ahead. But Scripture prophesies that before Jesus Christ returns to rule on the earth, the water that is left will be turned to blood (Revelation 8:8–11; 11:6; 16:3–4).
Why is God allowing all this to happen? What is He trying to accomplish? Request your free copy of our powerful booklet, Who Controls the Weather?, to learn more about God's plan for the world—and how you and your loved ones can stay close to Him and remain protected from the terrible catastrophes yet ahead, including the water calamity that is fast overtaking the world.