NEW YORK, 22 March 2005 - Ninety days after water generated horror and headlines around the globe, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said that 400 million children – almost one fifth of all children - lack even the bare minimum of safe water they need to live.
At least 20 litres of safe water per day (about two buckets) are essential to enable children to drink, wash hands of disease-bearing dirt and cook a simple meal. Without it, children become easy prey for a host of life-threatening afflictions carried in dirty water and on unwashed fingers.
According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2005, 21% of children in developing countries are severely water deprived, living without a safe water source within a fifteen minute walk of their homes. In addition, a staggering 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation. These deprivations cost many their lives and account for at least 1.6 out of 11 million preventable child deaths every year.
“Our failure to provide a mere two buckets of safe water a day to every child is an affront to human conscience,” Bellamy said. “Far too many are dying as a result of our inertia, and their deaths are being met with a resounding silence.”
This year ushers in the International Decade for Action, “Water for Life” - an international drive to bring safe water and basic sanitation into homes and schools worldwide. Bringing these services to the poorest families is at the centre of efforts to meet many of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - particularly MDG Four, which calls for the world to slash preventable child deaths by at least two-thirds.
Everywhere, low availability of safe water goes hand-in-hand with high child mortality rates. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where one in five children will never see their fifth birthday, 43 per cent of children drink unsafe water, risking disease and death with every sip.
The impact of unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene on child health goes far beyond the 4000 children dying daily from water-borne diseases like diarrhoea and typhoid. Many millions more are pushed to the brink of survival by repeated bouts of illness.
“Children forced to drink unsafe water and live in unsanitary conditions cannot thrive,” Bellamy said. “But when their lives are protected, their families are strengthened and their own children are likely to be born with better prospects. It’s the surest, shortest, smartest route to a more hopeful future.”
Since 1990, the world has seen a surge in global use of safe water – from 77 to 83 per cent, an extra one billion people. But there is still a long way to go. 1.1 billion people are still drinking water from unsafe sources like unprotected wells, rivers, ponds and street vendors. And with demand for water higher than ever, the scales are tipped against the poorest when deciding where supplies will go.
An average Canadian, for example uses over six times as much water per day as an average Indian, and over thirty times as much as a rural villager in Kenya (326 litres vs. 53 litres vs. 10 litres). And within countries there are equally dramatic disparities, often between urban and rural areas. In urban Indonesia, access to safe water averages at 89 per cent, while in rural areas it was only 69 per cent or lower before the tsunami struck.
When children have access to sustainable supplies of safe water, basic sanitation and hygiene education, the results can be dramatic, sending mortality and poverty reduction programmes into high gear. Children’s health improves and school attendance rises. We begin to see the end of social inequities, where girls bear the burden of carrying the family’s water. These benefits can start to arrive though something as basic as a hand-pump well at a school, or a home-based water purification system costing just a few cents a packet. In the tsunami zone, these simple interventions have restored a reliable safe water supply to hundreds of thousands of people.
But in other parts of the world, the poorest communities are still falling far under the political radar, with help coming sporadically or else not at all. Without the express commitment of governments at the national and local level to enable communities, village water supply systems are not maintained, or are simply not built.
Ensuring water services are shared equally between rich and poor alike requires a strong chain of political accountability, linking fair policies with good management.
But Bellamy said that deprivations will continue as long as water access is seen as a privilege instead of an inviolable right. She said a shift in global perspective could be a powerful tool for reducing water-related mortality and alleviating its devastating economic and social impact.
“Our unspoken belief that child deaths are inevitable casualties of poverty is both dangerous and wrong,” she said. “These deaths are the very things fueling poverty, locking communities into cycles of disease, deprivation and hopelessness. There is nothing to stop us from breaking these cycles. The barriers are all in the mind.”
Throughout the Decade of Water for Life, UNICEF will strongly support partners, including governments, civil society organisations and communities in over 90 countries to achieve safe water supply and basic sanitation in homes and schools, promote hygiene awareness and strengthen national policies to protect the poorest children. UNICEF continues to lead the global relief drive to bring water and sanitation to families in the tsunami zone and in other emergency situations.