What you need to know about water right now according to a public health expert

The importance of water extends far beyond what flows from your taps. Norman Neumann, vice-dean of the School of Public Health shares why it’s important to dive deeper.

Access to water is something that many North Americans take for granted. We know it’s important, but we don’t consider the impacts, both positive and negative, water has on our lives. According to Norman Neumann, vice-dean of the School Public Health, when it comes to thinking about water, it’s time to dive deeper.

Neumann notes that although safe drinking water is essential to our survival, our daily water usage is just a small percentage of the water needed to keep society thriving.

“We don’t see how important water is to our lives, it’s a little bit mind boggling,” remarks Neumann. “It is so essential to our human ecology. Without water, there is no sanitation, production of goods or agriculture.”

Neumann wants to raise awareness of the importance water plays globally. While many Canadians can easily access clean water, this is not the case in some Indigenous communities and in nations around the world.

Neumann notes that more than one billion people globally still lack access to clean, safe drinking water and 2.5 billion people lack access to appropriate sanitation. The impact of unsafe water can be staggering; every minute of every day, a child dies of waterborne disease. Around the world, people suffer from 60 billion diarrheal episodes each year due to waterborne infections.

“We should look at water as a human right for all people. We need a basic level of delivery for that essential resource and people need to become aware of how politically charged access to water can become.”

Neumann’s own research is focused on maintaining a safe, secure water supply and the development of novel approaches and tools for detecting, tracking and assessing human health risks associated with biological hazards (such as bacteria and viruses) in water. 

What you need to know:

  • Water impacts almost every aspect daily life

Human existence depends on water. Each day it takes 1.3 trillion litres of water to meet the human-based ecological demands of the U.S. population. Although our population in Canada is smaller, our per capita water demands are similar (or slightly higher). Surprisingly, a very small percentage of this water is used for drinking. All things we produce, eat or grow require water, and therefore, have a ‘water footprint’.

For example: It takes 140 litres of water to produce one cup of coffee, 40 litres of water to produce one silicon computer microchip, and a staggering 7500 litres of water to produce enough cotton for one pair of blue jeans.

“As the population grows, so does the need for water. Canada holds 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater. What will that mean for us in the future?” questioned Neumann.

  • Power and politics

Safe, secure water remains the foundation for the socio-economic and political stability of sovereign nations. Water is quickly becoming the next big geopolitical issue. “It’s been suggested that the next global conflicts may be waged over water. It is such a precious resource,” said Neumann.

Many countries are running out of water, and some areas where water is quickly running out are parts of the world that experience political instability. Neumann encourages people to become more active in understanding global events and how they pertain to water security.

  • Pathogens in water are evolving - and it’s happening close to home

Although the water treatment we rely on for clean water was instrumental in reducing the rates of infectious disease, even well-established beneficial practices have risks.

“As we disrupt nature, nature responds,” said Neuman, whose research suggests that water-borne pathogens may be evolving resistance to the very treatment processes we use to make water safe. Neumann comments that “Nature always adapts to difficult situations, and the strong will always survive. The instinct to survive is imbued in all life forms, including the waterborne microbes that make us sick. As we try to destroy these bugs they are forced to adapt and change. It would be to our peril to ignore this biological principle.”

Learn more about the profound impact water has on human health at Neumann’s This is Public Health virtual lecture

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Norman Neumann, professor and vice-dean of the School of Public Health