Yuna Kim

Pipe dreams: Water, sanitation and ambition

When I was a young girl, I dreamt of winning an Olympic medal for my country in figure skating. I was able to make this dream come true because I could take for granted things that hundreds of millions of children cannot. Among the most significant of these are clean water and proper sanitation services.

Every athlete knows how important it is to replenish the fluids lost through physical exertion. Long before I grew up and became a competitor, however, I enjoyed the good fortune of having good water, sanitation and hygiene. These saved me from sickness and, quite possibly, from death. Others are not so lucky.

I began skating when I was 5, but each year around 1.2 million children die from diarrhoea before they reach that age. Many of these deaths could be prevented with clean water, proper sanitation and good hygiene. Sadly, too many children living in urban poverty are at risk because they lack safe water with which to quench their thirst or wash their hands.

When it comes to getting water, life in the poorest urban neighbourhoods can be similar to that in impoverished communities in the countryside. In both settings, residents must walk great distances to fetch water – a job often left to girls. But, incredibly, as The State of the World’s Children 2012 notes, water in poor urban neighbourhoods without access to piped service can be up to 50 times more expensive than in richer parts of the city where it flows from the kitchen tap.

The situation is just as troubling when it comes to sanitation. As a whole, urban areas have better access to services than do rural ones, but populations are growing faster than the ability to meet their needs. One consequence of this is that the number of urban residents practising open defecation – a cause of contamination – rose from 140 million in 1990 to 169 million in 2008.

Even where urban sanitation facilities have been set up, they are shared by many people. Cleanliness and privacy can be hard to ensure, and children’s needs are seldom met. As a result, children – girls in particular – are vulnerable to sexual abuse or harassment at the municipal toilet block.

It is not only children who suffer from diseases related to unmanaged waste. Illnesses such as cholera and diarrhoea also strike millions of parents, teachers and caregivers – adults who are vital to keeping children healthy and safe. These are unnecessary illnesses and deaths, and we must do more to prevent them.

All children, regardless of where they live, have the right to clean water and sanitation as a means of being as healthy as possible. This entitlement is enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. That alone should be enough to command action but, if not, there is also a financial reason to invest in urban water, sanitation and hygiene. According to the World Health Organization, every US$1 spent on improving water supply and sanitation can generate economic gains of US$5–28, depending on local circumstances.

If the benefits are great, so is the need to act now. For the first time in history, more people live in urban areas than in the countryside, and by 2050 about 70 per cent of all people will live in cities and towns.

We know that it will take good urban planning and sufficient resources to meet the challenge of providing clean water and proper sanitation. But let us not overlook another essential ingredient of success: collective determination. It is said that where there is a will, there is a way. I believe this to be true and, as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, I am devoted to helping build the will to save and improve the lives of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens and neighbours – especially the ones who live and toil in overcrowded and underserved settlements just down the road or on the other side of town. I want them to be able to take for granted the essential services that can make it possible for them to realize their ambitions – just as I did.

Born in 1990, Yuna Kim won an Olympic gold medal for South Korea in figure skating and became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2010.

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