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Red Cross Report: Unsafe Water Kills Millions

The International Red Cross reports more than one billion people do not have access to safe water, and nearly 2.5 billion people lack access to sanitation. The agency says more than three million people die each year from diseases spread through dirty water and bad sanitation.

Red Cross Senior Water and Sanitation Officer Robert Fraser says the agency's 10-year initiative for improving water and sanitation conditions will focus on the poorest, most vulnerable communities in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. He says involving local communities in the fund-raising, maintenance and hygiene aspects of these projects will be key to their success.

"There is no point in us building water supplies or sanitation facilities, if the communities themselves cannot be able to maintain them, or to operate them in the long term," said Mr. Fraser. "It is a hard fact, a harsh reality, if you like, that it will be the communities themselves that will be needed to maintain these systems. So, the technology choice must be very simple and appropriate, and so that the cost of maintaining them is kept at an absolute minimum. Typically, it would be for a family something like 10 to 20 cents American [money] per month."

Mr. Fraser says that's a cost that even the poorest family can afford.

Over the past 10 years, the Red Cross has provided clean water and sanitation for 2.5 million people. The agency says it wants to expand these long-term developmental projects to improve conditions for six million people over the next 10 years.

Mr. Fraser says there is no doubt that these schemes save lives. As an example, he cites a community in eastern Zimbabwe that suffered an outbreak of cholera in 1998. He says many people became ill and died because the community had no latrines and very few clean water sources.

"So then, with the community, with the government we started a program of drilling bore holes, putting in hand-pumps, training the community how to service and look after the hand pumps," said Mr. Fraser. "We began a latrine construction project with the community, where they provided some of the labor, some of the materials, and we would provide things like cement and so on, help them to build their latrines.

"And, then added to that, the very important health promotion," he continued. "Since that time, that was '98, since that time, we have not had another cholera outbreak."

Mr. Fraser says it is possible to provide a safe supply of water for about $20 a year for each person in most developing countries. At that rate, he calculates, it will cost about $125 million to implement safe water and sanitation projects for six million people over the next 10 years.

The Red Cross-Red Crescent initiative coincides with the United Nations "International Decade for Action" to focus on water-related issues and development. The United Nations will officially launch the 10-year "Water for Life" initiative on World Water Day, March 22.