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UN: Poor Water, Sanitation Kills 1.5 Million Children A Year

  • Lisa Schlein

The U.N. Children's Fund says bad water and sanitation is killing more than 1.5 million children under age five every year. A new report by UNICEF shows the world, generally, is on track to meet the U.N. goal of halving the number of people with unsafe drinking water by 2015, but will miss a similar goal for sanitation. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA on the launch of the UNICEF "Progress for Children" report in Geneva.

The U.N. Children's Fund says more than 1.2 billion people have gained access to safe water since 1990. By any measure, this progress is impressive, but UNICEF says more is needed to prevent 5,000 children dying from diarrhea every day. What is killing them, it says, is lack of safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

The UNICEF report shows between 1990 and 2004, global coverage of safe drinking water rose from 78 percent to 83 percent. But during the same period, it finds global coverage of basic sanitation only rose from 49 to 59 percent.

The head of UNICEF's Sanitation Programs, Paul Sherlock, says people place a higher value on good water than on sanitation and this is a major stumbling block to good health.

"I think everybody sees the need for water and local communities are prepared to, in many cases, even contribute something towards water supply," he said. "People do not see quite the relevance of sanitation, for example, in hygiene, even though I think professionally now, we realize that the real barriers of disease are in the sanitation and hygiene sector. To very poor families in many parts of Africa, economically, sanitation does not make sense because they do not see the relevance of having to put that sort of effort into the sanitation side."

UNICEF says bad water and sanitation have a negative impact on a country's social and economic well being. It says sick people are unproductive and this affects a nation's development prospects.

It says water and sanitation are key to reducing the death rate in mothers and their children, reducing poor nutrition in children and achieving universal primary education. It says girls, especially, are likely to go to school if they do not have to fetch water and if there are good sanitation facilities available.

The report says Latin America and the Caribbean and the South Asia regions will meet the drinking water target almost 10 years early. But, it says many countries in South Asia are unlikely to meet the goal of increasing access to basic sanitation.

A UNICEF spokesman, Michael Bociurkiw, says Africa lags behind on both scores.

"West and Central Africa ranks lowest in the world for access to improved drinking water and sanitation and that is linked, of course, to the region's under five mortality rate which is the highest in the world. And, then, in eastern and southern Africa, the situation is not great either. It suffers from some of the lowest water and sanitation coverage in the world as well as the second highest rated under five mortality rates," said Bociurkiw.

The report makes clear that armed conflict impedes efforts to improve water and sanitation and in some cases has forced the clock back on progress in these areas. For example, it notes coverage for drinking water and sanitation in Iraq has declined by about 25 percent and many child deaths are linked to water-related diseases.

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