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DEVELOPMENT: Bad Water More Deadly Than War

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 18 2010 (IPS) - Bad water kills more people than wars or earthquakes, declares Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

The devastating earthquake in Haiti last January claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, making it one of the biggest single natural disasters this year.

But in contrast, some 3.6 million people – including 1.5 million children – are estimated to die each year from water-related diseases, including diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera and dysentery.

As the United Nations commemorates World Water Day next week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says clean water has become scarce and will become even scarcer with the onset of climate change.

“More people die from unsafe water than all forms of violence, including war,” he said in a statement released Thursday.

The theme of this year’s World Water Day on Mar. 22 – “clean water for a healthy world” – stresses that both the quality and the quantity of water resources are at grave risk.

A study released Monday by the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF provided current trends on water and sanitation in 209 countries and territories worldwide.

With 87 percent of the world’s population – about 5.9 billion people – using safe drinking-water sources, the world is on track to meet or even exceed the drinking-water target of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

But the bad news, according to the report, titled “Progress on Sanitation and Drinking-Water 2010 Update Report,” is that the U.N.’s sanitation targets are still lagging far behind.

With almost 39 percent of the world’s population (over 2.5 billion people) living without improved sanitation facilities, the report said that much more needs to be done to reach or come close to the sanitation MDG target.

“If the current trend continues unchanged, the international community will miss the 2015 sanitation MDG by almost one billion people,” it warned.

Serena O’Sullivan of the London-based End Water Poverty, however, is sceptical.

“The JMP suggests we’re on track to meet or even exceed the MDG for drinking water, but the situation is simply much more complicated, and we are not afforded the luxury of congratulating ourselves,” she told IPS.

Firstly, much of this progress is due to rapid improvements in East Asia, particularly China, “without which we would still be off-track”.

Secondly, she said, the overall figures mask huge disparities within countries and between them.

And thirdly, “even though we are on-track globally, nearly 900 million people are still without access to safe drinking water.”

Berntell of SIWI told IPS the joint work of WHO and UNICEF to continue monitoring the coverage of water supply and sanitation is extremely important.

“The results so far, however, are not as encouraging (because) even though progress is made, the rate is by far too slow,” he added.

As far as sanitation is concerned, Berntell said, “It is a global scandal that we see a total increase in the numbers of persons without improved sanitation.”

“This year, when we focus on the challenges of water quality in many of our discussions, the obvious links between the lack of proper sanitation facilities, and the resulting practice of open defecation, leading to deteriorating water quality, needs to be highlighted even more,” he added.

He appealed to leaders in society, from the local village to the international level, to resume their responsibility, and lead the way towards more investments and changed behaviour.

Dr. Maria Neira, WHO’s director of the Department of Public Health and Environment, said: “We all recognise the vital importance of water and sanitation to human health and well-being and their role as an engine of development.”

The question now lies in how to accelerate progress towards achieving the MDG targets and most importantly how to leap a step further to ultimately achieve the vision of universal access, she noted.

O’Sullivan said the sanitation and water crisis undermines progress made in other development areas because it affects some 2.5 billion people, and it is killing more children than malaria, HIV/AIDS and TB combined.

These two basic human rights – access to water and sanitation – are being refused to people across the world, leading to horrific consequences.

Currently, about 4,000 children under the age of five are dying every day from preventable water related illnesses such as diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera and dysentery.

Over half of hospital beds in developing countries are taken by those suffering with diarrhoeal illnesses, overburdening fragile health systems, she added.

The U.N. estimates that half of girls who stop attending primary school in Africa do so because of the lack of safe and private toilets.

“This water and sanitation crisis is holding back improvements across all other MDGs, including education and maternal and child health, and affecting not only human development but also, crucially, economic growth,” O’Sullivan said.

To prevent other development efforts from being undermined, “We need world leaders to take firm action to reverse the global water and sanitation crisis before it’s too late”.

On Apr. 23, she said, government ministers will have the chance to do just that as the first-ever high level meeting on water and sanitation takes place in Washington.

“They simply must commit to delivering real progress towards achieving sanitation and water for all,” she said.

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