A new report finds more than two billion people lack access to safe drinking water and more than twice that number or 4.5 billion people lack safe sanitation. The report by the World Health Organization and U.N. Children’s Fund is the first global assessment of water, sanitation and hygiene for the Sustainable Development Goals.

The United Nations reports nearly 850,000 people die every year from lack of access to good water, sanitation and hygiene. This includes more than 360,000 children under age five who die from diarrhea and many others from diseases such as cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid.

The joint report by the World Health Organization and U.N. Children’s Fund finds people living in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia are most at risk of disease and death from poor water and sanitation-related sources.

WHO Coordinator for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, Bruce Gordon says this report is the first to assess the importance of hygiene to good health. He says many homes, healthcare facilities and schools have no soap and water for handwashing.

“The one figure I would kind of like to emphasize here is that in sub-Saharan Africa, 15 percent of the population only has access to a hand-washing facility with soap and water,” he said. “And, as we know, good hygiene is one of the simplest and most effective ways to stop the spread of disease.”

One of the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals calls for universal and equitable access to safe water and sanitation for all by 2030. UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, Sanjay Wijesekera says such progress would have a knock-on effect on other development areas.

“For children, access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene not only keeps them alive and healthy, but it gives them a chance to go to school and gain an education. It reduces inequality … and it just gives them a fair start to life,” said Wijesekera.

The SDGs are calling for an end to open defecation, which perpetuates a vicious cycle of disease and poverty. Open defecation is practiced by more than 890 million people, mainly in rural areas, who have no toilet or latrine.




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