Water is the source of life. In many countries, safe water is available in abundance. Unfortunately, water scarcity and insecurity are an everyday reality for over 385 million children and their families in South Asia. Almost half of all children in South Asia suffer detrimental and sometimes irreversible effects on their health, development, education and security due to the persistent acute shortage of water.
The main drivers responsible for water scarcity in South Asia are poverty, power and inequalities. The presence of natural water sources and a country’s ability to utilise them are equally important to determine the availability of clean water. Millions of children and families in South Asia still do not have a dedicated water line connected to their homes or have a community tap nearby to collect water for daily use. Installations of water infrastructure and its maintenance is a costly affair that many, including governments, struggle to afford. The alternative is bottled water and water trucking, either of which comes at a high price and negatively impacts the environment from plastic pollution.
Climate change has further compounded the problems faced by families in the region. Reoccurring extreme weather events such as droughts and floods accounted for 74 per cent of worldwide natural disasters between 2001 and 2018. Every child in South Asia is affected by at least one climate or environmental hazard, shock or stress. The most vulnerable, rural, and poor children are being affected the hardest. Furthermore, soaring temperatures and rising sea levels have started contaminating freshwater reserves. Without urgent climate change mitigation, the entire water supply that millions rely upon could be disrupted and cause disease outbreaks in communities.
Unsafe water is the primary cause of diarrheal and waterborne diseases like cholera, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio among children. However, with no alternative, families are forced to cook with and drink contaminated water. As a result, children are constantly exposed to a myriad of health complications, curtailing their physical and mental development and exacerbating malnutrition and stunting. In extreme cases, these diseases can lead to lifelong morbidities and even death.
Lack of safe water also affects children’s education and, therefore, their ability to break away from the vicious cycle of poverty. The need to travel long distances every day to fetch water constantly disrupts learning for children in rural communities. In numerous instances, I have seen children drop out completely. Safe water and sanitation facilities in school also impact children’s academic performance, attendance and ability to complete schooling. This is particularly true for adolescent girls who are forced to miss school during menstruation due to a lack of proper toilets and clean water.
Health facilities too require an uninterrupted supply of clean water to keep the premises clean, sanitize equipment, wash hands and provide safe drinking water to patients. In its absence, vital health care services such as childbirth can be disrupted, forcing many pregnant mothers to deliver at home in unhygienic surroundings. The risk of infections among patients also rises sharply in health facilities experiencing water shortages.
Historically, women and girls have paid a higher price due to water scarcity. Generations after generations, they have been compelled to walk long distances to fetch water for daily use. The remoteness of the water source, harsh weather, physical and mental exhaustion, and abuse for failing to bring back water – all these constantly expose women and girls to extreme danger, trauma and health issues.
When talking about water, we cannot forget the interlinkages between water and livelihood. In South Asia, most families in rural communities still earn a living by farming on small plots of land. However, erratic weather patterns, droughts, floods, heat waves and other factors continue to adversely impact annual harvests and earnings. An increasing number of men are thus being compelled to migrate to nearby cities or other countries in search of greener pastures. This worsens matters for women and children who are now burdened with managing all household affairs.
Only those directly impacted by water scarcity understand the gravity of the situation. I have seen families pushed deeper into poverty and dismay. I have seen the hopes and dreams of children being crushed. I have seen generations of vulnerable children grapple to survive. The physical and emotional turmoil from it all leaves one scarred for life.
As a humanitarian worker, the biggest reward for my work is seeing the wide smiles on children and the jubilant dancing of people when they see water gushing out of the tap we helped build. Or the gleeful chatter and clapping by women and girls who no longer must walk for hours to fetch water. Every tap we install, every well we help dig, every truck of water we deliver, every drink of clean water a child takes – these are steps towards a better, more prosperous future for every child in South Asia.
To summarize, safe water equals life, and we need to do everything we can to protect it. The situation is grave. However, countries can take certain steps to safeguard children and families from the adverse effects of water scarcity:
Provide access to safe and affordable water, close to every home and managed professionally.
Ensure that all water services withstand climate change-related threats and make communities more resilient.
Avert water scarcity crises through sustainable water resources management and early warning systems.