Water everywhere, and still millions without sanitation
Australians do not need to be told that today is World Water Day to remember that water is both a giver and taker of life. This is the driest populated continent and we know well the impact of both floods and droughts.
But how many people are aware that billions of people across the world still lack access to a hygienic toilet, a tap and soap? Or that the failure to provide sanitation and safe drinking water causes about 4000 children to die every day?
The preventable diseases caused by poor sanitation cause more child deaths than malaria, measles and HIV/AIDS combined. Almost one in three people live in unsanitary conditions.
The good news is that the situation can be turned around. The recent World Health Organization and UNICEF report, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: 2012 update tells us that the world has already achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target for drinking water.
This is one of the first targets to be met since the MDGs they were set by world leaders twelve years ago. Over two billion people have been provided with access to drinking water in the last twenty years. That is a rate of over 270,000 people per day being provided with improved water services.
We should all celebrate this remarkable achievement. It shows that development works. The next big challenge is to improve sanitation for the 2.5 billion people living without basic sanitation.
Our new Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, has made it clear that he wants a return to basics across all our foreign policy and to pay closer attention to our region. This approach is fine as long as we target the areas that are most off-track.
Investment in sanitation needs to be increased and prioritised as it is a catalyst for human development and increased life opportunities for the poor. Providing a toilet reduces the health burden – at any one time half the hospital beds in the developing world are filled by people suffering from diarrhoea as a result of unsafe sanitation or water-borne disease; providing a toilet keeps girls at school because they have a safe and private place to go during menstruation; $1 invested in sanitation delivers $8 in economic return.
If Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the smaller nations of the Pacific are unable to improve their sanitary conditions, the region will be vulnerable. When cholera outbreaks occur in neighboring countries, Australia is always prompt at delivering emergency medical aid. In these situations, our engineers do a great job of emergency improvements to water supplies.
But the best way to deal with cholera is to invest in prevention, not wait until disaster strikes. Senator Bob Carr will be pleased to know that in 2009 and 2010 his colleagues in the Senate voted unanimously to support sanitation as a priority in the aid programs that AusAID delivers.
If Senator Carr bolsters our preventative approach to providing access to water, sanitation and hygiene it will strengthen the economic resilience of the Pacific and help communities to take proactive steps to improve their lives. Studies from our region show the economic losses associated with poor sanitation are alarming, equivalent to between two per cent and seven per cent of annual GDP.
There may be some people in the community who fear that Australia cannot afford to continue increasing its funding for water and sanitation in a time of global economic instability. This is understandable, but quite the wrong approach. The World Health Organization and UNICEF report revealed that the Pacific is falling behind and at risk.
Australia is one of the few countries in the world to have begun increasing the priority of water and sanitation programs in its official aid budget. This has support from all parties: Government, Opposition and the Greens. We must redouble our efforts in the Pacific, by investing now in future health and productivity for the region.
If Senator Carr or his Parliamentary Secretary, Richard Marles, want to have Australia’s WASH leadership recognized and be part of the next phase of the global solution, then they should attend the High Level Meeting of the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, at the World Bank next month in Washington, DC.
Senator Carr is a student of history and this should give him a clear perspective on the importance of water and sanitation in the public health of Australia. He would understand very well why the readers of the British Medical Journal ranked sanitation as the single greatest medical advance of the past 150 years.
If Bob Carr was not now our Diplomat-in-Chief, he might be reminding everyone that Melbourne has such a problem with sewage in the mid-19th century, that it was branded ‘Smellbourne’ by our friends in Sydney.
Let’s help the Pacific benefit from the lessons of our history.
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