Clean water. It's something the developed world takes for granted. But more than one billion people still use unsafe drinking water sources, and 40 percent of the world's population, 2.6 billion people, lack basic sanitation facilities. U.N. officials are warning that a vicious cycle of ill health and poverty could defeat efforts to close the gap between the haves and have nots.
A report released by the U.N. Children's Fund has a lot of good news. The world appears to be on target to reach Secretary-General Kofi Annan's millennium development goal on reducing the number of people without clean drinking water by the year 2015.
The greatest progress appears to be in India and China. Great strides have also been made in African countries such as Chad, Angola, Tanzania and the Central African Republic, where increases since 1990 exceed 50 percent.
But Vanessa Tobin, the chief of UNICEF's Water, Environment and Sanitation office, says sanitation figures are far less encouraging. "We're not talking about expensive services. We're talking about basic sanitation, access to a sanitary facility. For example in India we have supported simple household toilets which are built on site, low cost, easily maintained, do not cost a lot in terms of households contribution, so it's something we can do," she says.
Ms. Tobin said more than 700 million people in India and another 700 million in China have no access to even a simple improved latrine.
A just-released UNICEF report calls water and sanitation a silent emergency. It concludes that families living in rural villages and urban slums are being trapped in a cycle of ill-health and poverty.
Vanessa Tobin says tens of millions of women must spend a large chunk of time each day just ensuring that their families have water to drink. "In a rural village in the middle of Niger, where a woman has to travel maybe two hours to collect water, bring it back to her family, and then maybe have only enough to use it for cooking or drinking; for her it is not something she can ever take for granted. And we estimated that more than 40 percent of women and young girls in Africa spend more than half an hour traveling to collect water," she says.
UNICEF estimates that more than 40 billion work hours are lost every year in Africa to the need to fetch drinking water.
In the latest report, World Health Organization Director General Dr. Lee Jong Wook writes that water and sanitation are the most important determinants of public health. Dr. Lee says wherever people have reliable access to safe water and sanitation, they have won a major battle against a wide range of diseases.