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On World Water Day, a mighty global thirst

Some 1.2 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. For World Water Day, a report.

Refreshed: A boy drinks water from a coconut shell as he stands in the Kuakhai River just outside Bhubaneswar, India.

BISWARANJAN ROUT/AP/FILE

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Oceans splash across most of the earth's surface. But they contain saltwater, unfit for human consumption. Only a tiny fraction of the world's water – about 2.5 percent – is drinkable. That still would be an ample supply if it were clean and available where needed.

It's not. Today some 1.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.6 billion lack proper sanitation (adequate sewage disposal). As a result, tainted water supplies are blamed for the worldwide deaths of 1.8 million children, according to the United Nation's Human Development Report for 2006. That's 4,900 children per day under 5 years old (the number of children under 5 who live in New York and London combined).

What's more, children worldwide miss 443 million days of school each year because of water-related illnesses. The UN also estimates that half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from water-borne diseases.

Beyond that, millions of people (almost always women) wearily spend hours per day carrying water up to several miles for their family's needs because no source is close at hand.

Since 1992, the UN has sponsored World Water Day, this year being observed Saturday, March 22, to raise awareness of the need to protect and improve access to clean water supplies.

"When the well is dry, [then] we know the worth of water," said Benjamin Franklin, long before today's water challenges.

It's clear that competition for water "will intensify in the decades ahead," said Kemal Dervis, administrator of the United Nations Development Program in its 2006 report. "[W]ater is the ultimate fugitive resource, traversing borders through rivers, lakes, and aquifers – a fact that points to the potential for cross-border tensions in water-stressed regions."

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