The Affero Blog
What if your next cup of water was going to make you or your children sick? Imagine being scared of your own bathroom or being forced to go outside to relieve yourself. What would it be like to walk past broken pumps and overfilled latrines every day of your life?
Christine and her husband Taban live in the Waji village in Southern Sudan. They have five children. They used to get their drinking water from a stream. Christine says, “This water was so dirty; animals drinking from the same source and the water smells [like] cattle urine. I got a lot of problems as I continued drinking from this stream. My children were suffering from worms. Not only my children, I started suffering from body rashes followed by stomach ache and today as I talk, my first-born child who is twelve is having typhoid.” Christine’s community recently received a new well. “[T]his borehole is giving us hope for better future,” she says. “The money used for treatment is going to be used for raising our children and getting [a] better education.”
Nearly 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion do not have improved sanitation. The healthy and economic impacts are staggering. Around the world, dirty and diseased water leads to a cycle of sickness and poverty. Without safe water, communities struggle to teach their children, grow food, and earn a living. They can’t develop. Hope remains elusive. You can help change that by supporting programs run by organizations like Lifewater International or The Water Project. When a materially poor community or school receives a new water project, women no longer spend hours searching for a source of water. Children, especially girls, return to school. Water-borne illnesses are reduced. Hope is restored.
As our very own Barak recently posted, the United Nations declares water to be essential for full enjoyment of of life and all human rights. Yet governments struggle around the world to provide clean water and basic sanitation. There is a growing crisis. Who will help the majority world develop solutions these challenges?
880 million people lack access to Clean Water. 5,000 children die every day from water related illness. 5.5 billion adult productive days are lost every year due to diarrheal diseases. 40 billion hours are lost every year due to time spent fetching water in sub-Saharan Africa. $15 – $20 can provide clean water for one person for at least 20 years.
More than 50,000 rural water points in Africa (36% of the total) are non-functional. In Sierra Leone the figure is 65% (UNICEF). A safe water source alone typically reduces water born disease by only about 25% or less (WHO). Even a short period of breakdown for a well can eliminate annual health benefits. The estimated cost of universal access to clean water is $42 billion – the estimated cost of repairing existing infrastructure is $350 billion. So the problem isn’t going to go away (WHO). In some countries 40% or more of government water and sanitation budgets are not spent – there are local resources lying unused (Wateraid).
Barak points us to pioneering work that creatively addresses the need to move beyond welfare and charity and towards true community development that fosters fully functional and enduring work. Water for People utilizes the power of the free market to address the world’s sanitation crisis. The key to sanitation as a business is to make ongoing sanitation services the goal, rather than the installation of the latrine. When sanitation services are profitable and businesses see everyone without a latrine as a potential customer, businesses—rather than development organizations—will expand latrine coverage to increase their profit margin. Thus many more people will have access to toilets than they would with typical programming.
Digging wells is the easy part. We know that solutions must last to make a long-term difference. We at The Affero Project celebrate the courageous organizations working with the enterprising poor and empowering local capacity to extend access to safe water, improved sanitation, hygiene education and the skills needed to pass these resources to future generations.
In a landmark vote, the UN General Assembly on Thursday declared Water to be a human right, “essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” With nearly 900 million people worldwide without safe drinking water and 2.6 billion without access to basic sanitation, the declaration by the UN seems a no-brainer – especially when they are responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million children each year.
However, the implications of declaring something a basic human right reach far beyond just an idealistic notion. Officially recognizing water and sanitation as a fundamental human right is a legal act with strong ramifications.
“Human rights are protected by internationally guaranteed standards that ensure the fundamental freedoms and dignity of individuals and communities.They include civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. Human rights principally concern the relationship between the individual and the State. Governmental obligations with regard to human rights can broadly be categorized in obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill” (WHO, 2002).
And therein lies the problem. With the acknowledgement that it is a right comes the obligation to act – and in this arena, the principle actors are governments. By guaranteeing safe water to a population, there are overwhelming challenges that are expensive, time consuming, and more often than not, political. To often, governments are unwilling to shoulder this responsibility.
Ultimately, the question is – “how important is this?”. Personally, I tend to put very little reliance on governments and large agencies with large-scale initiatives. All too often they create dependence through top-down, paternalistic programs. And yet if we take an honest assessment of our own lives we come to the inevitable conclusion that we ourselves are highly dependent upon the infrastructure implemented and maintained by our governments. In development work, cooperation and collaboration with local government is an essential component – even at a grassroots level. By gaining buy-in and and long-term commitments from government for supporting essential services, the quality and sustainability of programs like safe water and sanitation are greatly enhanced. The greatest challenge, however has been gaining this buy-in. Though it won’t happen overnight, this resolution combined with ongoing efforts, will help governments to begin to take the necessary steps towards providing for their own people.
There is, however, one overarching attitude in the resolution that is regrettable – it is one that places primary responsibility on rich countries to bring change. This is one of the central themes that plagues international development. The trillions of dollars that have been poured into the developing world over the last three decades attests that money is not the primary barrier to poverty alleviation. Responsible use is. The West can only do so much – ultimately national governments must be willing to take responsibility for their own populations. Water and Sanitation provision is a great start.
Over and over you’ll hear me talk about our part in driving positive solutions. The expectations and demands you place on implementing organizations has a profound effect on how they execute programs. Ask the organizations you support how they garner buy-in and participation from local government and if their strategies incorporate handing off programs to local government or local organizations. Though not always done well, it is among the indicators used to judge the viability of a program.