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Extreme weather events threaten safe drinking-water and sanitation New guidance on countermeasures presented on World Water Day


22 Mar 2011


Health & Consumers

Copenhagen and Rome, 22 March 2011

Coping with the growing needs of water and sanitation services in cities is one of the most pressing issues of the century. A new book, Guidance on water supply and sanitation in extreme weather events (1), is presented by the WHO Regional Office for Europe and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) on the occasion of this year’s World Water Day “Water for Cities”. It describes the effects of climate-related weather events on the management of urban water resources and illustrates effective ways to minimize impacts and health risks.

“Under extreme precipitation and drought, water and wastewater services can be damaged or fail, resulting in service denial or contamination of the drinking-water, with severe impacts on the health of our citizens,” says Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “With this guidance, we want to assist European policy-makers and operators of water supply and sanitation services in making them resilient against extreme weather, thus protecting human health.”

The number of climate-related extreme events in Europe increased by 65% between 1998 and 2007, with overall economic losses doubling to almost €14 billion from the previous decade. About 40 million people have required help with their health and basic survival needs, such as safe shelter, medical assistance, safe water supply and sanitation, in the past 20 years. This is a growth of about 400% compared to the 8 million people affected in the previous two decades (2).

The WHO European Region is heavily urbanized. Out of a total population of over 880 million people, over two thirds live in urban areas. Cities require a very large input of freshwater, a well functioning sanitation system, and an adequate drainage system capable of coping with both extreme precipitation and extreme drought.

Temperature increases, rainfall fluctuations, droughts, heat-waves and cold spells expose or stress freshwater resources and sanitation services, limiting or polluting water. The main effects on human health are gastrointestinal diseases, dermatitis and conjunctivitis.

In periods of drought, water scarcity will reduce the self-cleaning capacity of sewers. After heavy rains, storm water washes human, animal and other waste into unprotected resource waters, thereby chemically or biologically polluting water at the point of consumption; sometimes this is irreversible and reaches beyond local and national borders. Hot or cold weather can damage water and sanitation infrastructures and services, resulting in the need to restrict and prioritize water use.

Water supply and sanitation services have to prepare for the widely anticipated consequences of extreme events, which may compromise people’s access to safe drinking-water and adequate sanitation, with cascading effects on their health. Disaster response is important but it is not enough: what is required is risk prevention, preparedness and anticipation, as well the joint and coordinated work of meteorologists, hydrologists, geohydrologists and health workers.

Under the Protocol on Water and Health, WHO is promoting the introduction of national plans in European countries to ensure the safety of drinking-water. The design and maintenance of water supply, sewerage, and waste-water systems need to be weather-sensitive, to minimize the functional and health impact of floodwater and drought. Spots where unusual weather patterns could create physical problems and changes in the quantity and quality of drinking-water need to be identified, as do alternative water resources. Communication among all involved parties – administration, operators, owners, rescue systems and consumers – needs to be timely and accurate.

Notes to editors

    * The Protocol on Water and Health to the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes is the world’s first international legally binding agreement to protect human health and well-being through better water management. It was adopted in 1999 at the Third Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health and entered into force in 2005. It currently has 24 Parties and 14 Signatories. The Protocol’s secretariat is provided jointly by the WHO Regional Office for Europe and UNECE.

    * World Water Day, designated by the United Nations General Assembly, is observed internationally each year on 22 March to celebrate the right to water. World Water Day in 2005 marked the start of a new United Nations International Decade for Action “Water for Life” to achieve water-related goals and the United Nations Millennium Declaration.

For more information, please visit the web site of the WHO Regional Office for Europe and of the World Water Day :

    * Protocol on Water and Health
    * Water and sanitation
    * Climate change
    * Environmental health
    * World Water Day

Russian, French and German versions of this press release will be available on the WHO Regional Office for Europe web site soon. To subscribe to or unsubscribe from this mailing list, please send an e-mail to

For questions about the data contained in the guidelines, please contact:
Mr Roger Aertgeerts
Programme Manager, Water and Sanitation
WHO European Centre for Environment and Health, Rome
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Tel.: +39 06 4877 528 

+39 06 4877 528   

Dr Bettina Menne
Programme Manager, Climate Change and Green Health Services & Sustainable Development
WHO European Centre for Environment and Health, Rome
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Tel.: +39 06 4877 546            

+39 06 4877 546     

For further information and interview requests, please contact:
Ms Cristiana Salvi
Technical Officer, Communication
WHO European Centre for Environment and Health, Rome
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Tel.: +39 06 4877 543 

+39 06 4877 543      

Mobile: +393480192305 


1. Guidance on water supply and sanitation in extreme weather events: The draft adopted by the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on Water and Health is available on the UNECE web site  ( The final publication will be available on the WHO Regional Office for Europe web site in early April 2011.

2. According to data from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) International Disaster Database (EM-DAT), 2009 (


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