UN warns on silent emergency of dirty water

Posted: 11 October 2004

A major report warns that the UN global water and sanitation target for 2015 will fall short, leaving millions of poor people worldwide out of the loop when it comes to access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

Woman carrying water, Ethiopia. Photo: WHO/P. Virot
Woman carrying water, Ethiopia. Photo: WHO/P. Virot
Woman carrying water in a jar near Alem Kitmama North East of Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia. Credit: © WHO/P. Virot
Today, more than 2.6 billion people - over 40 percent of the world's population - do not have access to basic sanitation, while, an estimated 1.1 billion people - roughly one in every six people - do not have clean water to drink.

The world is on track to meet the 2015 drinking water target, but population growth may outstrip improvements, with 800 million people still drinking unsafe water by that date, says a report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Meanwhile around half a billion people, mostly in rural and Asia and Africa, will not have basic sanitation, allowing waste and disease to spread, killing millions of children and leaving millions more on the brink of survival, the agencies predicted.

Child being treated for Cholera, Bangladesh. Photo: Medicins Sans Frontieres
Child being treated for Cholera, Bangladesh. Photo: Medicins Sans Frontieres
A child being treated on a cholera cot at a clinic in Bangladesh.© Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders
"Around the world millions of children are being born into a silent emergency of simple needs," says Carol Bellamy, UNICEF's executive director.

"The growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots in terms of access to basic services is killing around 4000 children every day and underlies many more of the 10 million child deaths each year. We have to act now to close this gap or the death toll will certainly rise," said Bellamy.

"Water and sanitation are among the most important determinants of public health. Wherever people achieve reliable access to safe drinking-water and adequate sanitation they have won a major battle against a wide range of diseases," says WHO Director-General Dr. Lee Jong-wook. Eight Millennium Development Goals were agreed by the United Nations member governments at the Millennium Summit in 2000. The targets state that the proportion of people worldwide not having access to an improved water source and the proportion of people worldwide not having access to adequate sanitation facilities should be halved between the baseline year of 1990 and 2015.

The UNICEF and WHO progress report assesses the headway made by countries in water and sanitation provision between the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) baseline year of 1990 and the half-way mark of 2002.

Urban pressures

The agencies warned that a global trend towards urbanisation is marginalising the rural poor, putting a huge strain on basic services in cities. As a result, families living in rural villages and urban slums are being trapped in a cycle of ill health and poverty. Children are always the first to suffer from the burden of disease caused by dirty water and poor hygiene, while the wider impact of unhygienic environments undermines economic progress and erodes good governance, the agencies said.

Developing regions of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, are most at risk. But the report highlights some worrying trends in the industrialised regions, where coverage figures for clean water and basic sanitation facilities are estimated to have decreased by two percent between 1990 and 2002. In the former Soviet Union, only 83 percent of people had access to adequate sanitation facilities. With economic and population pressures growing, these percentages could decrease, the report warns.

The consequences of inaction today are severe, according to WHO and UNICEF. Diarrhoeal disease currently takes the lives of 1.8 million people each year - most of them children under five - with millions more left permanently debilitated. Over 40 billion work hours are lost in Africa to the need to fetch drinking water. And many children, particularly girls, are prevented from going to school for want of latrines, squandering their intellectual and economic potential.

The report should be a wake-up call to all global leaders, Lee and Bellamy said. Every country still has work to do to eliminate disparities in basic services and the data shows clearly how that can be done before the Millennium Development Goal deadline of 2015.

"To meet the 2015 targets, countries need to create the political will and resources to serve a billion new urban dwellers, and reduce by almost one billion the number of rural dwellers without access to adequate sanitation facilities. Otherwise we risk leaving millions, if not billions, out of the development process," said Dr Lee.

There are some encouraging signs, say Lee and Bellamy. Great gains in water and sanitation coverage have been made against considerable odds in many countries. "This progress came as a direct result of political prioritisation and a drive to find locally effective solutions," they said.

Over the past 12 years, WHO and UNICEF estimate that an additional 1.1 billion people have gained access to an improved source of drinking water - bringing global coverage rates up to 83 per cent today, from 77 per cent in 1990.

"This report is important because it proves that significant improvements are possible in a short space of time, even in the poorest countries," said Bellamy. "By identifying trends now, and committing to course corrections, we have a real opportunity to ensure that by 2015 these basic essentials of life are available to all."

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