European countries that have ratified a Protocol on Water and Health are meeting for the first time to launch programs to prevent, control and reduce water-related diseases. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

People in much of Europe take tap water for granted. They tend to believe that the problem of unsafe water has been solved. But Health and Environment Director at the World Health Organization, Roberto Bertollini, says this is not true. He says more than 100 million Europeans still do not have access to safe drinking water.

He says the problem is particularly acute in Eastern Europe, where 16 percent of the population has no access to home drinking water. He says over 170,000 cases of water-related diseases were reported in 2006, including cases of viral hepatitis A, bloody diarrhea and typhoid fever.

"In addition to that, we have another very, very shocking phenomenon which in the European region - therefore, again in an area where we have the most developed countries, but also some of the countries in the more difficult economic transition-we still have 13,500 cases per year of children under the age of 14 who die for gastro-intestinal infections of a water-related nature," Bertollini said.

This comes to 37 children who die every day from diarrhea in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Bertollini calls this absolutely unacceptable, especially since this and other water-borne diseases can be prevented.

Twenty countries have ratified the Protocol on Water and Health and another 17 are expected to soon follow suit. Those who have ratified this legally binding document are obliged to take action to solve the problem of unsafe water by upgrading their water management systems.

Kaj Barlund is Director of the Environment, Housing and Land Management Division of the UN Economic Commission for Europe. He says the worst problems exist in the less developed regions of Europe.

But, he says Western European countries have invested practically nothing over the past 30 years in updating their water systems. As a consequence, he says many people have seen their water, electricity and heating supplies interrupted on occasion.

He says governments must find the political will to invest the billions of dollars that are needed to improve their water systems.

"The return of these investments through less health problems and also direct productivity problems because people are sick and they do not go to work is enormous," Barlund said. "There is an estimate that for every dollar spent in this sector, we avert cost and productivity decreases of eight dollars. So, the return is exceptionally large."

The parties to the Protocol on Water and Health will hold a second conference in three years.