Stop preventable threats to water supply

Drinking water resources must be safeguarded against preventable diseases caused by unsafe sanitation - a far greater threat to populations in developing countries than terrorism.

Pamela Wofe,
Managing Editor

Drinking water resources must be safeguarded against preventable diseases caused by unsafe sanitation - a far greater threat to populations in developing countries than terrorism.

The global outpouring of disaster relief aid prevented major epidemics, such as cholera, dysentery or typhoid, in the weeks following the devastating tsunami of 26 December 2004.

The tidal wave claimed the lives of more than 200,000 lives in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Maldives, and its aftermath was expected to claim thousands of more lives from contaminated water, infection and the spread of disease. But the enormity of the disaster that swept away so many lives on a deceptively calm Sunday morning shocked the world. Only hours passed before satellites began to send horrifying images of the tidal wave carrying city buses, trees, cars and people to their death.

The global relief effort began immediately. Political leaders and international organisations quickly focused on efforts to provide clean water and sanitation to tsunami survivors, recognizing the importance of safe drinking water supplies in averting a “second tsunami wave” of death. Financial aid, medical assistance, and millions of dollars worth of water and wastewater equipment donated from the global water industry helped devastated communities.

The global campaign has succeeded, so far. But once disaster relief efforts start transitioning into long-term reconstruction efforts, will the promised funding from nations continue to flow? Unfortunately, video footage of poor, sick and dying people in substandard housing without clean water and even a simple latrine does not attract as much attention from the media or political leaders as a tsunami disaster. Yet this global response in the tsunami aftermath proves that once nations create the political will to help solve a problem, they can generate the necessary resources.

Four thousand children die every day from unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation throughout the world, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Two million people die every year from diarrhoeal diseases, most of them children less than five years old. Where is the public outcry? Media attention? Why are these deaths not generating a global campaign to stop the preventable sickness and death of millions of people every year?

Five years ago, United Nations’ member states agreed upon Millennium Development Goals (MDG) that targeted water and sanitation needs. Nations agreed to reduce by half the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015, and progress is being achieved. The Joint Monitoring Programme carried out by the WHO and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) determined that the world is on track to meet the drinking water target, except for the sub-Sahara region. However, the report states: “Global population growth is cancelling many of the gains already made. Though more than a billion people gained improved sanitation between 1990 and 2002, the population without coverage declined by only 100 million.”

More than 2.6 billion people, over 40% of the world’s population, still do not have access to basic sanitation, and more than one billion people still use unsafe sources of drinking water.

Achieving the MDGs for water and sanitation by 2015 would require an average of US$ 6.7 billion per year until 2015, which is less than half the amount spent on pet food in Europe and the USA, according to a report published in January 2005 by the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation. An abridged version of the report was published with support of the Swedish Water House (

But beyond funding, increasing access to clean water supply and sanitation also needs a recommended plan of implementation. The UN Millennium Project took three years to prepare the report “Health, Dignity and Development: What Will It Take?” and come up with the best strategies for achieving the MDGs by 2015. Some of the recommendations include --

• Donors must commit to increasing and refocusing their development assistance and to target sufficient aid to the poorest low in-come countries;

• Middle-income countries that do not depend on aid must reallocate their resources to target funding to their unserved poor;

• Create support and ownership for water supply and sanitation initiatives among women and men in poor communities; and a

• Recognition that basic sanitation requires community mobilisation.

Political will and commitment, however, are crucial to meeting the millennium challenges.

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