New report calls for simple solutions to global sanitation crisis

A new report from the UN Millennium Project has presented an operational plan for halving, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

In the same week, a UNICEF conference warned of the effects poor sanitation can have on the education of those in the developing world and how this in turn affects development in those countries.

The UN report, Health, Dignity and Development: What will it take?, underscores the need to focus on the global sanitation crisis which contributes to the death of 3,900 children a day. It emphasises the need to increase access to domestic water supply and to invest in integrated development and management of water resources – all factors necessary for countries to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals.

It shows how poverty, hunger, environmental problems and diseases would be directly combated and significantly scaled back if fought with water and sanitation access as a primary goal.

Currently, 1.1 billion people lack safe drinking water and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.

A recent cost-benefit analysis by the World Health Organisation found that investing in water and sanitation would bring substantial economic returns of between US$3 and US$34 for every US$1 invested depending on the region. Achieving the water and sanitation target would cost on average US$6.7billion per year until 2015 – less than half of what Europe and the US spend annually on pet food.

It also highlights the fact that education and gender equality would be greatly enhanced through provision of clean water and sanitation. This was also the theme of a UNICEF conference in Oxford, England, this week.

UNICEF warned that over half of all schools worldwide lack basic sanitation and water facilities, cheating children out of a quality education. It hampers school attendance, affecting children’s ability to learn.

“The tsunami has turned the spotlight on a global crisis affecting more than one billion people every day, particularly children,” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. “Safe water and sanitation are essential to protect children’s health and their ability to learn at school. In this sense they are as vital as textbooks to a child’s education.”

Across the world, a lack of access to safe water and sanitation has a disastrous impact on children. Diarrhoea and intestinal worms thrive in unsanitary conditions and 1.6 million children die annually from these diseases while many more are left malnourished, weak and unable to learn.

The situation is particularly critical for girls who make up most of the 115 million children currently out of school. Many are denied a place due to lack of access to separate and decent toilets at school, or from having to face the daily chore of walking miles to collect water for the family.

Education for girls can be supported by something as basic as a girls-only toilet which will support their safety and dignity. It will also decrease the drop-out rate.

“Getting and keeping girls in school is a major step topward reducing poverty in the next generation and improving child survival rates,” said Carol Bellamy. “And making schools girl-friendly means they automatically become better environments for boys too.”

However, the conference made clear that this was a far greater matter than simply building toilets or drilling wells. Hygiene education programmes for children and teachers are also needed as, for many children, school is the only opportunity to discover the link between good hygiene and health.

Hand-washing alone can reduce cases of diahhroea by at least 40%.

“We will only reap the rewards of investment in education if we safeguard children’s health while they learn,” Ms Bellamy said. “For the world’s poor children, every day in school is a precious opportunity. Let’s help them make it.”

By David Hopkins

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