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UN warns of ‘silent emergency’ over deadly lack of basic sanitation

UN warns of ‘silent emergency’ over deadly lack of basic sanitation

With more than 2.6 billion people - over 40 per cent of the world's population – lacking access to basic sanitation, and more than 1 billion drinking unsafe water, the United Nations today issued a wake-up call to global leaders for urgent action now to meet ambitious goals set by the 2000 UN Millennium Summit.

While the world is on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of cutting the number of people lacking safe drinking water to 800 million by 2015, the MDG of providing basic sanitation to 75 per cent of the global population will at the present rate of progress fall short by half a billion people, allowing waste and disease to spread, killing millions of children and leaving millions more on the brink of survival.

Most of this toll will occur in rural Africa and Asia, according to a report released today by World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The MDG baseline date for reaching the targets by 2015 is 1990.

“Around the world millions of children are being born into a silent emergency of simple needs," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. "The growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots in terms of access to basic services is killing around 4,000 children every day and underlies many more of the 10 million child deaths each year. We have to act now to close this gap or the death toll will certainly rise."

"Water and sanitation are among the most important determinants of public health. Wherever people achieve reliable access to safe drinking-water and adequate sanitation they have won a major battle against a wide range of diseases," WHO Director-General Dr LEE Jong-wook added.

The severe human and economic toll of missing the sanitation target could be prevented by closing the gap between urban and rural populations and providing simple hygiene education, the report notes. It warns that a global trend towards urbanization is marginalizing rural poor and putting huge strain on services in cities. As a result, families living in the rural villages and urban slums are trapped in a cycle of ill-health and poverty.

While more than 1 billion people have gained access to basic sanitation services, population growth has outstripped the global response, translating numerical gains into much smaller gains in proportional terms. In 1990, 49 per cent of world had access to basic sanitation facilities. Today, that figure has increased by only nine percentage points, way behind schedule for the 2015 MDG target of 75 per cent coverage.

The consequences of inaction are severe, according to WHO and UNICEF. Diarrhoeal disease currently kills 1.8 million people each year, mostly children under five, with millions more left permanently debilitated. Over 40 billion work hours are lost in Africa to the need to fetch drinking water. And many children, particularly girls, are prevented from going to school for want of latrines, squandering their intellectual and economic potential.