U.S. Water News Online
STOCKHOLM, Sweden — People in developing countries are facing growing health risks caused by the widespread use of raw sewage to irrigate crops, according to a study presented at a global water conference in Sweden.
The report, by the International Water Management Institute, says more than half of farmland near 70 percent of cities in Third World countries is watered with sewage that threatens to spread epidemics.
"Irrigating with wastewater isn't a rare practice limited to a few of the poorest countries," said Liqa Raschid-Sally, a researcher at the institute. "It's a widespread phenomenon, occurring on 20 million hectares (50 million acres) across the developing world, especially in Asian countries, like China, India and Vietnam, but also around nearly every city of sub-Saharan Africa and in many Latin American cities."
She was speaking at the start of World Water Week, a conference attended by 2,500 scientists, politicians and officials from 140 countries. The United Nations has named 2008 the International Year of Sanitation.
Experts said that 1.4 million children die every year from diarrhea-related diseases and poor hygiene, and described the global sanitation crisis as "the world's largest environmental problem."
An increasing demand for water and food has spurred the use of sewage to water crops but in many cases is the only form of irrigation for farmers who lack clean water, the study showed. It is mostly used to produce vegetables and cereals, and poses a major health risk to consumers of uncooked vegetables.
However, the report said sewage also provides a livelihood for many by making possible the cultivation of land, and it recommends an increase in purifying water supplies rather than a total ban on the use of wastewater.
In Accra, Ghana, some 200,000 people depend on vegetables produced on agricultural land near the city that is watered with sewage, Raschid-Sally said. "That gives you an idea of the large potential of wastewater agriculture for both helping and hurting great numbers of urban consumers," she said.
Conference participants also stressed the need to increase transparency in the water production chain.
Up to 45 percent "of costs for providing clean water around the world go toward corruption," Transparency International global programs director Christiaan Poorter told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the week-long water meetings.
Other participants include Malagasy President Marc Ravalomanana, Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and this year's winner of the Stockholm Water Prize, British professor John Anthony Allan.
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