Niagara of challenges faces UN in fight to bring safe and sufficient water to world

22 March 2005

The numbers speak volumes, a Niagara of challenges in the United Nations battle for safe water: 4,000 children dying each day from water-borne diseases; 400 million youngsters lacking even the bare minimum of safe water they need to live; a staggering 2.6 billion people without access to basic sanitation.

As the UN system celebrated World Water Day today, launching the international Water for Life Decade, it is the figures and individual case histories, beyond the messages of agency heads, that bring home the enormity of the task facing Planet Earth as it seeks to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the number of people lacking access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) spotlighted water deprivations that account for at least 1.6 million out of 11 million preventable child deaths every year. Nearly three children die every minute from water-related causes like diarrhoea and typhoid. In sub-Saharan Africa, where one in five children will never see their fifth birthday, 43 per cent of children drink unsafe water, risking disease and death with every sip.

With 1.1 billion people still drinking from unsafe sources like unprotected wells, rivers, ponds and street vendors, many millions of children are pushed to the brink of survival by repeated bouts of illness.

At least 20 litres of safe water per day, about two buckets, are essential to enable children to drink, wash hands of disease-bearing dirt and cook a simple meal. Without it, they become easy prey for a host of life-threatening afflictions carried in dirty water and on unwashed fingers.

Yet, according to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2005, 21 per cent of youngsters in developing countries are severely water deprived, living without a safe water source within a 15 minute walk of their homes.

The disparities between the developing and developed worlds are staggering. An average Canadian uses over six times as much water per day as an average Indian, and over 30 times as much as a rural villager in Kenya. Within countries, too, there are equally dramatic disparities, often between urban and rural areas. In urban Indonesia, access to safe water averages at 89 per cent, while in rural areas it was only 69 per cent or lower.

“Our failure to provide a mere two buckets of safe water a day to every child is an affront to human conscience,” UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said. “Far too many are dying as a result of our inertia, and their deaths are being met with a resounding silence.”

For its part, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported from Gegriyaad, the Plain of Death, in Somalia, so named because of the number of drivers who perish of thirst there every year when their trucks or cars break down on the way to Djibouti.

At this frontline trench in the war against thirst in the Zeila district on the Gulf of Aden, where the mercury climbs to over 50 degrees Celsius between June and September, one old-timer comments: “When a bird flies from one tree to another, he will die before reaching the next tree.”

As if nature was not harsh enough, man destroyed Zeila’s only sources of water – five boreholes – during the long-running civil war and there was no way Somali refugees could return to the region. But now UNHCR has re-drilled and re-equipped four boreholes in cooperation with UN and non-governmental organization (NGO) partners.

Even with the four boreholes, however, nomadic herders spend three or four days travelling in each direction to fetch water for their families and their animals, transporting the priceless commodity to their homes on the backs of donkeys and camels.

This is just a microcosm of the enormity of the challenge facing an agency that currently seeks to help some 17 million people in more than 116 countries. In Tindouf, Algeria, a project is underway to improve water supply to Smara camp in the middle of the Sahara desert, home to tens of thousands of refugees from Western Sahara.

In another desert refugee camp setting in eastern Chad, where more than 200,000 refugees from Sudan’s Darfur conflict have sought safety, UNHCR continues to struggle to provide sufficient water to meet the refugees’ daily needs, trucking in water, drilling boreholes, digging wells and resorting to high-tech satellite images and remote sensing technology to try to identify additional sources of water.

“Our protection goals are to ensure that refugees’ fundamental rights are respected, including their access to water,” Acting High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin said in a message to all UNHCR staff marking the Day.

 

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