WATER SCARCITY AND MENTAL HEALTH
From 22 to 24 March 2023, the United Nations World Conference on Water took place, an extremely important occasion to highlight the need to ensure universal access to safe water by 2030. The assembly “must result in a bold agenda for action on water that will give the lifeblood of our world the commitment it deserves,” said António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, on the urgency of concrete action (United Nations, 2023).
Having access to clean water is a basic right as a resource that supports every aspect of life on Earth. However, it has been and continues to be abused for decades, putting complex systems that require large amounts of water, such as agriculture, at serious risk. Approximately 2 billion people in the world do not have access to drinking water and 3.6 billion have access to water on which appropriate purification processes are not carried out. According to data from the UNICEF and WHO Report, at least 1.4 million people, mostly children, die each year from poor water-related sanitation (UNICEF and WHO, 2019.). According to WWF, the water problem is also associated with the impacts of climate change, aggravating a situation that is in itself complex and difficult to address. The two poles of the climate-related water problem are manifested on the one hand through droughts, caused by evaporation due to rising temperatures, and on the other hand, through floods and inundations and rising sea levels, caused by melting glaciers (Bates et al. 2008).
Although water is becoming a more than precious commodity (referred to as ‘blue gold’ due to its high cost), it is also subject to much waste. Italy is among the most water-wasting countries in Europe and uses a significantly high amount of water for productive uses, using about 75 per cent for the production of crops to feed livestock and 10 per cent for grazing and breeding, for a total water footprint index of 85 per cent. The textile industry is also responsible for the large use of water (the second largest in the world), using about 93 billion cubic metres of water per year (ISTAT – Water Footprint Network – FAO).
We are experiencing a real global water crisis, and this has social as well as economic repercussions, such as poverty, migration, insurgency, and violence, and above all a serious impact on health. The lack and contamination of water is, in fact, an additional individual and social stress factor that affects people’s mental, as well as physical, well-being. In a recent longitudinal study conducted in Flint (Miami), high levels of psychiatric disorders such as depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder were found (about 1 in 5 inhabitants). There is also an association between psychological conditions and socio-economic factors, revealing a particularly unfavourable situation in the African American working-class population and an interdependence between psychological malaise and distrust of public health information. It is thus inferred that stress related to water insecurity in urban environments merely accentuates an already pre-existing condition, not identifying itself as the sole cause of mental illness. In addition, the crucial role played by communication about the current environmental condition and concrete proposals on possible solutions, together with the psychological support needed to deal with it, is highlighted. Furthermore, there is very little dedicated mental health support available for MAPA (Most Affected People and Areas) people and communities facing the devastating consequences of climate change. Proposals are needed that address long-term psychological risks, as well as the design of adequate structural plans to repair and prevent housing damage caused by climate change.
Almost one billion people worldwide suffer from some form of mental disorder. Of these, one in seven are adolescents. At the same time, young people are also the most involved and exposed in the fight against climate change, suffering from the many negative experiences related to the environment, such as Eco-Anxiety, the intense fear of the catastrophic and disastrous scenario whereby the Earth’s biological foundations will fail (Innocenti, 2022). Indeed, according to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report of February 2022, the rapid increase in climate change poses a growing threat to mental health and psychosocial well-being, causing emotional distress, anxiety, depression, and even psychological pain and suicidal behaviour (Creutzig et al. 2022). In addition, there is a growing need to value individual well-being among the factors evaluating a country, in addition to income growth, and to value a wider variety of individual and collective needs in policy and infrastructure choices to mitigate the effects of climate change. For a more in-depth look at this topic, you can read Chapter 5 of the 2022 IPCC Report, an interesting insert dedicated to the social aspects of climate mitigation.
In this respect, the scarcity of water resources is yet another proof that there is no climate justice without social, health and economic justice. Furthermore, in light of the complexity and latency with which the effects on mental and global health are manifested, it is of paramount importance to shift from an individual approach to health to a planetary one and to implement the multidisciplinary evolution of health interventions to manage the impact of the climate crisis.
Article by Matteo Innocenti, IPSI- Istituto Psicologico Italiano and Giulia Dockerty, AIACC- Italian Climate Change Anxiety Association