The United Nations says a growing water and sanitation crisis that is killing 2 million people a year worldwide is cutting economic growth in Africa by five percent, far more than international aid to Africa. The U.N. Development Program (UNDP) raised the concern in its annual report on human development.
The United Nations is calling for a global plan of action to address a growing gap in access to clean water and sanitation that is affecting a disproportionate number of people in Africa.
The lead author of the report, Kevin Watkins, told reporters in Johannesburg that access to clean water and sanitation has expanded for people in some African countries and he cited Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana as examples.
But he said the situation has not improved in many other countries, adding that its effect is wide-ranging.
"If you look at the sheer costs of the problem in terms of the peoples lives, peoples health, economic growth, what becomes very clear is that clean water and sanitation is just about the most effective vaccine for advancing public health," said Watkins. "It is just about the most effective mechanism for accelerating economic growth potentially."
The U.N. report says nearly half of the 2 million children who die every year from water-borne diseases live in sub-Saharan Africa. It also says that nearly one-half of Africans do not have access to clean water and nearly two-thirds do not have access to proper sanitation.
Watkins says that unfortunately many African governments do not place a high priority on water and sanitation.
"This is something that kills more children in sub-Saharan Africa than anything except for acute respiratory tract infection," he noted. "But I do not think that African governments have sent a very clear signal to the donor community on water and sanitation."
The report says many Africans live on less than five liters of water per day, the equivalent of a single flush of a modern toilet. It calls for every family to be guaranteed a minimum of 20 liters per day and adds that it should be free for the very poor.
The report also calls for governments to raise spending on water and sanitation to at least one percent of gross domestic product.
Watkins notes that some countries have made the right to water and sanitation part of their constitutions. He praises South Africa for placing the provision into law.
"The thing that South Africa has done right is that by legislating for that provision its actually given people in South Africa quite a strong voice for holding providers to account, for holding government to account and for holding the water regulator to account," he added.
The U.N. report was also grim in reporting the statistics on income, life expectancy and school enrollment that make up what it calls its human development index.
It notes that figures improved in most regions of the world but says they stagnated in sub-Saharan Africa. This is due primarily to the AIDS virus, which has lowered life expectancy rates on the continent by 20 years.
The report also says that HIV/AIDS is taking its toll on Africa's female population whose life expectancy for the first time has fallen below that of males.