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Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Children to speak out at World Water Forum in Mexico City

© UNICEF/HQ05-1493/Zaidi
A girl drinks safe water from a UNICEF-supplied storage tank at a camp for people displaced by the earthquake in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

By Rachel Bonham Carter

NEW YORK, USA, 16 March 2006 – Children are bearing the brunt of a global crisis that is keeping safe, clean water beyond the reach of 1.1 billion people. Because children are the most vulnerable and the hardest-hit, UNICEF believes the water situation will improve only when children’s needs are given priority and their views are heard by decision-makers.

“Children are right there,” said UNICEF Chief of Water, Environment and Sanitation Vanessa Tobin. “They see these issues and they won’t be hesitant or shy about bringing them up. Children are not clouded by diplomacy. They are truthful. That is why it is so important to listen to young people.”

The Children’s World Water Forum to be held 16-22 March in Mexico City is a chance for children’s voices to be heard. More than 100 children from over 30 countries will bring their experiences to the attention of government ministers gathered for the 4th World Water Forum, a policy conference on global water management issues. The children will discuss how young people can help the world reach targets laid out in the Millennium Development Goals – such as halving the number of people living without safe water and basic sanitation, and significantly reducing child deaths from waterborne diseases.

“Sometimes, we tend to, as decision-makers, not listen sufficiently to young people and the issues that they raise,” noted Ms. Tobin. “What we have to remember is that if we really want sustainable change, we need to involve young people.”

© UNICEF/ HQ04-0935/Noorani
Two girls fetch water at the Riyad camp in West Darfur, Sudan. UNICEF supports the rehabilitation and installation of handpumps, latrine construction and hygiene education at the camp, where some 8,100 displaced people live.

Cycle of poverty

One of the places most in need of sustainable improvements in water and sanitation is sub-Saharan Africa, which is currently in the grip of a drought. But even in good years there, when rain enables decent harvests, drinking water is scarce and only one in three people has access to basic sanitation facilities.

As a result, waterborne diseases run rampant and children, often weakened by malnutrition, fall prey to typhoid, cholera, intestinal worms and other illnesses and infections. Diarrhoea contracted from contaminated water is the world’s second biggest killer of children under the age of five; over 1 million die from it every year.

Illness from dirty water affects virtually every aspect of children’s lives. It stunts their physical and mental development and can leave them incapable of attending school. With every bout of sickness, their prospects of breaking free from the cycle of poverty dwindle.

Girls suffer most. They traditionally bear the burden of fetching and carrying water for their families. Some have to walk so far to the nearest clean water source that they have no time to attend school. Others may be put off enrolling because their school has unhygienic facilities or no toilet at all. Attendance rates have been known to soar with the introduction of latrines and clean water in schools.

© UNICEF/HQ05-1671/Mohan
Girls brush their teeth at a UNICEF-provided water point at Baan Nai Rai School in Phang Nga province, Thailand. The village was devastated in the December 2004 tsunami.

Putting children first

In the world’s poorest countries, health services, infrastructure and economies are poorly equipped to deal with the growing water and sanitation crisis. The economic burdens of high health costs, lost education and lower productivity due to illness cost each affected nation billions of dollars every year.

UNICEF believes the solution to these problems lies with the world’s children.

Twenty girls and boys between the ages of 11 and 16 have been sponsored by UNICEF to appear at the Children’s World Water Forum this week. They will tell their stories of water, sanitation and hygiene advocacy in developing nations – stories like that of 15-year-old Dolly Akhtar .

Dolly has begun a visible transformation of Rupnagar, the slum where she lives in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. An adolescent girls’ hygiene-monitoring group led by Dolly educates people in its community about hygienic living. The group has brought in new latrines and helped to reduce by half the incidence of diarrhoea in the community.

Children like Dolly prove that putting children first in line for basic water and sanitation services can lift the yoke of poverty and illness from poor communities, giving nations a chance to thrive. The World Water Forum meetings in Mexico City “have to show children results,” said Ms. Tobin of UNICEF, “because these are the young people who will be playing a major role in their communities in the next ten to twenty years.”

Tim Ledwith contributed to this story.




15 March 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Rachel Bonham Carter reports on the world water crisis with children at its heart.

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