The Big Thirst: The High Cost Of Bad Water

In the U.S., Canada, and Europe, we don’t worry much about diarrhea. But diarrhea is a plague in much of the developing world–deadly and costly.


Fact: India spends 2 percent of its GDP treating diarrhea, according to TERI, one of the country’s most prestigious scientific research institutes. That means India is spending $30 billion a year treating diarrhea, a totally preventable disease. That’s $400 million a week.

In the U.S., Canada, and Europe, we don’t worry much about diarrhea.
But diarrhea is a plague in much of the developing world–deadly and costly.

India, a darling of global economic development, a democracy with a capitalist economy, an aggressive space program, and a growth rate three times the growth rate of the U.S., is spending more on diarrhea resulting from bad water than the total economies of 94 of the 181 nations on Earth (including Jordan, Panama, Costa Rica, Iceland).

Another study estimates that 70% of the people admitted to a hospital in India are there because of a disease caused by tainted water.

We all pay a terrible price for mismanaged water, but the poor (whose sour water is often “free,” at least in the sense that they don’t have to pay for it)–pay the highest cost of all.


Not one of the 35 largest cities in India has water service more than an hour or two a day–including the name-brand cities we’ve all heard of: Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Delhi. Many visitors to India never realize this, because hotels, offices, and upper-class homes have pumps and tanks that provide fake 24-hour service–the moment water pressure comes on, the pumps pull as much water into the tanks as possible. The result is a kind of illusory water service for a small slice of the population, and an undermining of efforts to improve overall municipal water service. (Imagine how fast India might be growing if its cities had water service 8 hours a day…)

Sadly, India can’t redirect the money it spends treating people with diarrhea into installing water treatment systems that would prevent people from getting sick in the first place, ultimately saving money and misery. That’s not the way governments think, in India or the U.S. But it points up another truth about water and water spending: It pays for itself. Nothing improves health faster, or unleashes economic energy, like giving communities clean water.

Almost half of Indians don’t have access to clean, safe reliable water–540 million people in just a single country. And one in six Indians relies on water that has to be carried home by foot–a time-consuming chore almost always handled by women and girls. When you tote that 24-pack of half-liter water bottles home from the supermarket next time, try balancing it on your head, like many Indians do. That’s 26 pounds of water–just three gallons. Enough for one U.S. toilet flush.

Adapted from The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, to be published in April by Free Press / Simon & Schuster. © 2011, Charles Fishman.

Read the feature from Fast Company‘s April issue.

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[image: Flickr user waterdotorg]