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The right to survive


IN many parts of the world people take it for granted that they can turn on a tap or flush a toilet. But more than 1 billion people have little choice but to drink from potentially harmful sources of water.

The consequences are deadly. Nearly 2 million people die every year from diarrhoeal diseases including cholera, according to the World Health Organization. Of this toll, 90 per cent are children under 5, mostly in developing countries, where poor sanitation and hygiene are the biggest killers.

Add a crisis, such as a flood, drought or food insecurity, and the problem is magnified many times over.

Conflict contributes another dimension. About one-third of people who lack access to safe water live with conflict. When water sources are contaminated, damaged or destroyed, thirst and disease add to the misery of war.

Water, the most basic building block of life, is central to humanitarian work. As former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “We shall not finally defeat AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria or any of the other infectious diseases that plague the developing world until we have also won the battle for safe drinking water, sanitation and basic health care.”

Access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a human right. Too often governments don’t invest enough in the infrastructure to keep their people healthy. Even worse, governments don’t protect their natural resources. They allow private companies to exploit precious water resources needed to sustain their populations. Safe water and sanitation is a human right and must not become a commodity sold to the highest bidder.

How is the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement addressing this human right?

First, we deal with acute crises. Here, time is of the essence to save lives, contain health threats and restore dignity.

Over the past 12 years, National Societies have provided more than 6 million people with water and sanitation in emergencies.

Second, we address chronic water and sanitation challenges, mostly related to the grim statistic that two out of every ten people in the world have no source of safe water and four people in ten do not have access to even a simple pit latrine.

Over the last ten years, National Societies have provided sustainable water and sanitation facilities to more than 2.5 million people, contributing to the United Nations Millennium Development Goal to reduce by half those without sustainable water and sanitation facilities by 2015. In addition, the ICRC has provided water and sanitation for more than 16 million people affected by conflict in 40 countries.

In 2005 the International Federation launched a ten-year Global Water and Sanitation Initiative to bring water and sanitation to 5 million people by 2015. So far, the initiative has identified more than 15 large projects in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. In one, 250,000 people in some of Niger’s poorest communities will benefit from safe water. Among the priorities are protecting existing water resources, avoiding decertification, promoting hygiene and responding to community needs.

The Movement’s unique grass-roots network is essential. Only a well-balanced programme that addresses water, sanitation and hygiene promotion will bring the change we need.

There is no room for complacency. In sub-Saharan Africa, 42 per cent of the population is still without an improved water supply.

And there is no time to lose. Unsafe water kills 3,900 children a day. Climate change is making water even scarcer. If we do not tackle this problem, we condemn billions of people to a cycle of poverty and disease.







Water facts

• 1 billion people lack access to improved water sources — this is 17 per cent of the world’s population. Nearly two-thirds live in Asia.
• 1.8 million people die every year from diarrhoeal diseases including cholera; 90 per cent are children under 5, mostly in developing countries.
• To meet the Millennium Development Goal target, 260,000 more people per day by 2015 must get improved water sources.
• Hygiene education can reduce diarrhoea by up to 45 per cent.
Source: World Health Organization



Uli Jaspers
Uli Jaspers is head of the water and sanitation unit of the International Federation’s secretariat in Geneva.



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