Rise in access to safe water in Europe

Further work is needed to continue improving access to safe drinking-water at home, sewerage systems and safe bathing water throughout the European Region. Surveillance systems to assess outbreaks of waterborne diseases must be extended and improved, as recent data indicate that most outbreaks go undetected.

Safe drinking-water

On average, access to safe water at home has improved. Since 1990, 20 out of 48 countries monitored in the Region have made such improvement; 22 countries have indicated no change, and 6 have shown an overall decline in access to safe water. Belarus is a striking example of dramatic improvement: the share of homes in rural areas with access to safe water rose from 34% to 68% between 1990 and 2006.

Sewerage system coverage

There are huge differences between countries and between urban and rural areas in the share of the population with a connection to wastewater treatment facilities, although coverage has increased in general. In the Nordic and some other northern European countries with a long tradition of water purification, more than 85% of the population is connected to wastewater treatment facilities. The proportion falls to 40–60% in southern European countries, however, and below 40% in some other countries in the Region.

Safe bathing water

An analysis of data from European Union (EU) countries over the period 1990–2007 indicates that the quality of coastal bathing water is increasing, but the quality of bathing water in freshwater areas is declining on average.

How poor quality water affects health

The most common effect of poor quality water on health is diarrhoeal disease, which causes 5.3% of all deaths among children aged 0–14 in the European Region. Contaminated drinking-water frequently causes diseases such as cholera, typhoid, viral hepatitis A and dysentery. Water can be contaminated with naturally occurring inorganic elements (such as arsenic, radon or fluoride) or by human activity (leading to contamination with lead, nitrates and pesticides). Contaminated bathing water can cause severe diseases such as typhoid and leptospirosis, as well as minor infections.

Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health

In 2004, the Fourth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health adopted the Children’s Environment and Health Action Plan for Europe (CEHAPE), which includes four regional priority goals to reduce the burden of environment-related diseases in children. The first goal is to prevent and significantly reduce morbidity and mortality arising from gastrointestinal disorders and other health problems by ensuring that adequate measures are taken to improve all children’s access to safe and affordable water and adequate sanitation.

WHO has investigated the Region’s progress towards reaching the regional priority goals. WHO/Europe published the findings in a series of fact sheets that will contribute to discussions at the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health, to be held in Parma, Italy on 10–12 March 2010.