One million people in Europe die of waterborne diseases every year

Approximately one million people in Europe are dying from waterborne diseases every year, with over 120 million in the region lacking safe drinking water, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).

As well as micro-organisms in water supplies, new pathogens associated with wealthier industrialised nations are becoming of increasing concern, said the WHO at a meeting of representatives from European governments in Budapest. At the meeting, the first gathering of the signatories of the Protocol on Water and Health to the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, countries reported on their schedule of ratification.

According to Roger Aertgeerts, Regional Advisor for Water and Sanitation at the WHO Centre for Environment and Health in Rome, microbial diseases are occurring more and more in countries such as the former Soviet States. “This is mainly due to degradation of water supply systems where they do not have the economic wherewithal to maintain them,” Aertgeerts told edie, pointing out that the degradation results in leaks, and cross contamination from sewers.

“Every year it is estimated that in our region there are 2.2 million deaths caused by diarrhoea, which is often associated with contaminated water or water of bad quality,” a spokesperson for WHO Environment and Health, in Denmark, told edie. One such culprit is cryptosporidium, a coccidial protozoan parasite.

Chemical pollution throughout Europe is also cause for worry, says the WHO. Pesticides in groundwater have been reported from a number of countries, and concern about persistent organic pollutants also continues, particularly endocrine disrupters.

Studies from Germany have revealed the increasing presence of drugs and other substances in drinking water, such as sex hormones from contraceptives and cholesterol-lowering drugs. US studies have shown that other substances such as X ray contrast agents, antiseptics, and fragrances can often be detected. Concentrations of the most persistent compounds are higher near larger cities and industrialised areas, and there is evidence, says WHO, that the number of males being born in Europe may be dropping.

A number of regions also suffer from pollution from naturally occurring elements which result in exceeded target levels in water supplies, says the WHO. In Estonia, for example, high levels of iron, manganese, fluoride and barium have been reported. Arsenic is of particular concern, particularly in Eastern Europe, explained Aertgeerts.

In a number of regions, particularly those affected by war, shortage of water may be one of their most urgent health problems, according to the WHO. In the North Caucasus, for example, says the WHO, water and sanitation facilities are currently often below the minimum humanitarian guideline level, under stress from refugees and people returning home. In the Chechen city of Grozny, even hospitals rely on trucked water and have poor sanitation.

Pressure on water supplies to urban conurbations will also increase, as an additional 22 million people are expected to live in cities over the next fifteen years.

The signatories to the Protocol have agreed to take all appropriate steps to achieve:

  • adequate supplies of wholesome drinking-water free from micro-organisms, parasites and substances which pose a threat to human health;
  • adequate sanitation to sufficiently protect human health and the environment;
  • effective protection of water resources used for sources of drinking water;
  • adequate safeguards for human health against water-related diseases arising from the use of water for recreational uses, or as a source of fish and shellfish;
  • effective monitoring of water, and contingency plans in case of outbreaks or incidents of water related diseases.

The Protocol will become legal once it has been ratified by 16 countries, which is expected to occur by June 2003. Currently, the Russian Federation is the only nation to have ratified, but, says Aertgeerts, quite a number of other countries have translated the Protocol to their national languages, a prerequisite for going before parliament.

The Protocol has now been signed by 36 countries: Albania, Armenia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie