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updated: 3/22/2013 7:33 AM

World with more phones than toilets shows UN's water challenges

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  • An Indian man bathes under a leaking water supply pipeline on World Water Day on the outskirts of Jammu, India, Friday.

    An Indian man bathes under a leaking water supply pipeline on World Water Day on the outskirts of Jammu, India, Friday.
    Bloomberg News

Bloomberg News

There are more mobile phones on Earth than clean toilets, one of the most vexing challenges facing governments on the 20th anniversary of the United Nations' World Water Day.

Solving that developmental dilemma has so far confounded leaders, some of whom will meet today in The Hague to discuss water cooperation. There are 6 billion mobile phones, according to the International Telecommunication Union, while 1.2 billion of the planet's 7 billion people lack clean drinking water and 2.4 billion aren't connected to wastewater systems.

The most vulnerable -- whether in China, India or sub- Saharan Africa -- may be the young that must survive water scarcity or quality issues while supplies are overused in other countries like the U.S., said Maxime Serrano Bardisa, a water analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance in London.

"One of the biggest reasons for child mortality is water sanitation, we are still very underserved when it comes to water sanitation facilities," Andreas Lindstrom, program manager at the Stockholm International Water Institute, said at a conference in Vina del Mar, Chile. "It's still more risky to go to the bathroom in many countries than any other activity."

Statistics show at least one in three people don't have a toilet. More people die from diseases caused by not having a clean, safe place to go to the bathroom than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

An American taking a 5-minute shower uses more water than the average person in a developing country slum uses for an entire day, BNEF said.

Business Challenges

With freshwater unevenly distributed across the world, businesses from beverage companies to power utilities and the agricultural sector face challenges securing access to the resource, BNEF's Serrano Bardisa said.

"Water is central to our well-being and prosperity, and it is finite," said Paul Street, director of sustainable solutions at Black & Veatch Ltd., an infrastructure company. "Failing to better manage water resources has, potentially, significant impacts on our economy."

Ninety gallons of water are needed to grow 1 pound of corn and 40 barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil, Street said.

The nexus of food, energy and water is the most important water issue going forward, Lindstrom said.

"It's not only providing basic services," he said. "If we continue to consume the way we do we will not have the water to cater to all these different needs."

Water, Wastewater

Xylem Inc., the water company spun off by ITT Corp. in 2011, has called on the U.S. Congress to make protecting American water and wastewater infrastructure a national priority.

"An important step would be enactment of legislation to provide additional financing mechanisms to address the water infrastructure funding gap, which currently stands at an EPA- estimated $500 billion," Gretchen McClain, chief executive officer of the White Plains, New York-based company, said this week.

Congress should consider proposals to create an infrastructure bank, expand use of water project private activity bonds and renew the State Revolving Loan Funds, McClain said.

"The pressures on water infrastructure highlighted by World Water Day are often lost in the attention focused on communications and energy development," Street said. "Without water, there is no life, yet in many ways, water has become the forgotten utility."

--With assistance from Peter S. Green in New York and Matt Craze in Santiago. Editors: Tina Davis, Jasmina Kelemen

To contact the reporter on this story: Randall Hackley in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at

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