Time to reflect on a modern health crisis

Kenneth Hamatende’s daughter Mutinta by the family's new latrine, in Chipembele, Zambia. Water and sanitation — the most critical building blocks in health care — are often neglected. Photo by: WaterAid

It’s one of the greatest health challenges facing the planet today — and one of the most overlooked.

World Toilet Day reminds us of a figure too often forgotten: 2.5 billion people on Earth do not have a decent, private, sanitary place in which to relieve themselves.

An estimated 10.6 million children under the age of 5 have died since 2000 because they lacked access to a hygienic toilet, safe water, and good hygiene — more children than the entire population of New York or London.

We are bombarded with new initiatives in health: new vaccines, new partnerships, new treatments. Yet water and sanitation — the most critical building blocks in health care — are often neglected. We have known of their importance in disease prevention for 150 years, yet far too many health care facilities in the developing world lack clean water and sanitation services.

For this World Toilet Day, WaterAid joined 35 other international health and medical organisations and associations to call for an end to this crisis in an open letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

This health crisis touches every moment of a child’s life. Without basic sanitation, children are left to live and play in areas contaminated by human waste, leaving them exposed to bacteria and parasites. Their food and water may be contaminated. They may become malnourished from repeated episodes of diarrhoea, stunting their physical growth and their ability to develop and learn.

One-quarter of the world’s 162 million children have had their growth stunted and their physical and mental development impaired because they suffered repeated bouts of diarrhea when very young. Half a million children die each year from diarrheal illnesses linked to a lack of safe water, basic sanitation and good hygiene. That is nearly 1,400 children a day.

But there is a solution.

As the curtain falls on the Millennium Development Goals next year, the goal on water — to halve the proportion of people without clean water — has been met. However, sanitation — an afterthought in the original MDGs — is among the most-off track. Next year, the United Nations will negotiate fresh sustainable development goals as a new framework to guide development over the next 15 years. WaterAid has joined many other partners in lobbying for a stand-alone goal on water and sanitation.

With political will and financing, we believe it is possible to reach everyone, everywhere with clean water, basic sanitation and hygiene education by 2030. But to do so we need this guidance from the top, to ensure those who have been left behind are left behind no longer.

The lives of millions of children depend upon it.

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About the author

  • Margaret Batty

    Margaret Batty is the Director of Global Policy and Campaigns at WaterAid. She has over 20 years' professional experience working in an international capacity for the voluntary sector, including Age Concern, local government, central government, EU institutions and the United Nations.