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Water, Sanitation, Health Issues In Conflicts Must Be Addressed

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica

At the Sanitation and Water for All Sectors Ministers’ Meeting in Costa Rica this week, Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, set out an ambitious goal to bring safe access to water to 60 million more people by 2021 and to reduce open defecation for 250 million.

Fore pointed to the urgent need to accelerate progress in three areas: “WASH (Water, Sanitation and Health) in health care facilities, WASH in conflict, and bringing more private sector expertise, products and financing into our work”, according UNICEF’s press release.

WASH Issues In Conflicts Must Be Addressed

Fore identified that WASH issues in conflicts must be addressed on an urgent basis. “One in four children in the world is living in a country affected by conflict or disaster; children living in fragile and conflict-affected countries are twice as likely to lack basic sanitation — and four times as likely to lack basic drinking water.” It is estimated children under the age of 15 are almost three times more likely to die from diseases linked to unsafe water and sanitation (eg. diarrhea or cholera) than from direct violence.

"In Lebanon last year, local mayors told me that water is the number-one issue they face. Water systems are straining to meet communities’ needs with the influx of Syrian refugees. Just one example of many where existing water systems are strained by humanitarian crises," Fore said.

And unsafe water can be as deadly as bullets or bombs. Children under 15 are almost three times more likely to die from diseases linked to unsafe water and sanitation — like diarrhoea or cholera — than from direct violence.

A new UNICEF advisory published last month calls for an immediate end to attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure and personnel, calling for investments in (these) countries’ WASH sectors that will serve not only immediate humanitarian needs — but the long-term development of sustainable water systems.

Fore said that UNICEF is taking a long-term view across all of our emergency WASH programmes, including:

Building dams in Somalia to improve rainwater-harvesting and water security.

Providing emergency water and sanitation to almost 300,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Training local women in South Sudan to install water taps, build new latrines with separate facilities for men and women, and ensure that these facilities are well-lit with street lamps.

Her comments also drew attention the fact that access to water being used as a weapon of war with direct and deliberate attacks on water systems leading to cessation in the flow of water and the resulting reliance on unsafe sources.

One In Four Health Care Facilities Lacks Basic Water Services

Fore addressed a new report released by UNICEF and WHO on April 3 which identified that one in four health care facilities globally lacks basic water services, with an estimated two billion people at increased risk of infection. The report also identifies that, annually, 17 million women in Least Developed Countries (LDC’s) give birth in health centers with inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene, with increased risk of sepsis. (OOSKAnews, April 4)

The report includes 8 specific actions that can be taken to improve WASH services with recommendations ranging from establishing national plans and targets to improving infrastructure, and includes working with communities to create demand.

Claiming that WASH services and primary health care service is a solvable problem, Ms. Fore pointed out that there is a high return on investment and UNICEF calls for investments in WASH sectors that will serve not only immediate humanitarian needs, but also the long-term development of sustainable water systems.

Children’s health, maternal health, education, population development all require safe, reliable, clean water and failure to implement solutions to these issues directly affects entire economies. According to the World Health Organization, poor sanitation results in an estimated global GDP loss of $260 billion annually, because of health costs and productivity losses.

UNICEF’s own priorities include crisis assistance as well as longer-term projects to build dams to harvest rainwater.

Fore called on the private sector to partner across water and sanitation issues and identified projects across the globe that provided training, jobs, and sustainable solutions to localized crises and challenged ministers to do better and not allow for failure.