21/10/2012 12:43 BST | Updated 19/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Water. Water, Everywhere

Wherever I look in the magazines that have landed on my desk over the past week or so, I seem to find water, or at least articles and reports on water, or to be more specific, articles and reports on the lack of access to clean drinking water.

"Almost 900 million people worldwide do not have access to clean drinking water and more than 1.5 million children under the age of five die each year as a result of water and sanitation-related diseases," notes a report in the current issue of ISO Focus+, the magazine of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) which is based in Geneva.

The report focuses on an ISO international workshop on water access and use, held recently in Kobe, Japan. It points out that improved water, sanitation, and hygiene could prevent at least 9% of the global disease burden and 6% of all deaths. In another article in the same issue, we read that the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 2.2 million people die annually from foodborne and waterborne diseases.

After reading the issue, I turned to the Autumn issue of Liquid, a glossy HSBC customer magazine. A news item reveals that research commissioned by the bank found that universal access to water supply and sanitation could lead to a $220 billion economic gain. The bank, in partnership with three non-governmental organisations: Earthwatch, WaterAid, and WWF, has launched a five-year $100 million Water Programme that aims to improve access to safe water and sanitation.

Next, I flipped through the pages of the October issue of Chemistry & Industry, the magazine of Britain's Society of Chemical Industry only to find a three-page article on water technology. The first paragraph refers to a United Nations' World Water Development Report on freshwater resources. The report estimates that three to four billion people worldwide do not have access to safe and reliable tap water.

Finally, I looked at the 8th October issue of Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly news magazine of the American Chemical Society which is based in Washington D.C. It includes an announcement that the society has launched a campaign called "Coins for Cleaner Water" to raise funds from its members and employees to help people in developing nations purify household drinking water. The society will work in partnership with Procter & Gamble to support its Children's Safe Drinking Water programme. The funds will be used to purchase "P&G Purifier of Water" packets. When dissolved in water, the powder in these packets releases a chlorine disinfectant that kills bacteria and viruses. The powder also releases iron sulfate, a chemical that coagulates pollutants in the water such as parasites, dirt, worms, and toxic heavy metals. The pollutants can then be removed by filtering the water through a cloth.

The provision of safe water is a global challenge today and has been so throughout history, not least during periods of war. And that applies to both civilians and armed forces.

The lack of clean drinking water in hospitals during the Crimean War is just one example. The war was fought between Russia and Turkey from 1861 to 1865. Britain and France entered the war on the side of Turkey in 1854. When English nursing pioneer and hospital reformer Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) arrived in Turkey during the war, she found conditions at the Barrack Hospital in Scutari, a suburb of Instanbul, dire and insanitary. The water supply for much of the hospital at the time passed through the decaying carcass of a horse and was stored in tanks in a filthy courtyard next to open privies designed to cope with men suffering from diarrhoea.

Similar experiences were reported during the First World War. In his book Old Soldiers Never Die, Frank Richards, a private in the British Army, describes drawing water "for drinking and cooking purposes" from a ditch which he subsequently discovered contained dead bodies of soldiers.

According to a report in the British Medical Journal in 1915, a soldier in bivouac required one gallon of water for drinking and cooking each day. In barracks, the daily water requirement was 20 gallons per man. A horse required 8 gallons each day.

During the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the British laid more than 120 miles of pumping mains to ensure an adequate supply of water to the troops. A variety of methods were employed to purify the water. Typically solid impurities were removed using a coagulant chemical and the water sterilised with a chlorine-releasing disinfectant such as bleaching powder. Even so, as I describe in my book Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War, waterborne infections diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, and cholera played havoc among the troops of the belligerent nations as they did among civilians.

The following two lines come from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834):

Water, water everywhere

Nor any drop to drink.

Change the second line to "Nor any drop of clean water to drink," and Coleridge could be speaking not for thirsty sailors but for the hundreds of millions of people today, in the Great War and throughout history who suffer and have suffered from lack of safe drinking water.

Michael Freemantle's latest book, Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War is available to purchase at: