Access to Drinking Water, Food Security and Adequate Housing: Challenges for Engineering, Past, Present and Future

There are basic truths in the often-quoted idiom, “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”. Taken literally, the tomorrow is a slight exaggeration but without water a human will not survive more than a few days and in the case of no food, a few weeks. In the pre-agricultural period of human history, the hunters-gathers foraged and hunted for water and food and, if unsuccessful, their chances of survival were severely, maybe even fatally, compromised. Humans also breath oxygenated air; about 20,000 or more times a day and the majority can only survive a very few minutes without it. However, even with sufficient air, water, and food in the absence of some form of shelter to protect against the vagaries of weather, animal predators, including other humans, survival was very difficult. Today, the same dismal situations occur when humans do not have access to clean drinking water, clean air, sufficient food, and adequate housing. These challenges have been exacerbated since the nineteenth century as global populations rapidly increase, a trend likely to continue to at least the end of the twenty-first century. Globally the world produces more food than it consumes, the amount of water has remained a constant since humans first appeared, anthropogenic activities continue to adversely effect air quality, and the housing supply is not keeping up with demand. Despite the global food and water situations there are still people without secure access to food or clean drinking water, which exacerbates the housing problems. Are these issues simply the ramifications of overwhelming population rise? Can they be solved? In a recent global survey, the respondents expected that as the world population increases engineers can resolve the water, food, and housing scarcities, although they also believe that engineering’s first priority is to solve these problems by 2035, as well as improving renewable energy and healthcare. These are challenging tasks long familiar to engineers, especially since political, cultural, geographical, and economic obstacles are invariably faced in their pursuit of providing societies with acceptable, sustainable, and affordable solutions. Moreover, access to water, food and housing is not only globally desirable, but also the member states of the United Nations have declared them to be universal human rights. In an attempt to ensure that global action is taken to satisfy these rights, specifically defined Sustainable Development Goals have been agreed by the same member states. Will these help or hinder engineering efforts to address societal expectations? In this chapter, the challenges faced, both in the past and present, by engineers with regard to improving drinking water quality, increasing food quantity and quality, and providing adequate housing are discussed along with some observations on how and why some of the present obstacles may be exacerbated in the future.

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