Where we stand on the problems of the world's water, sanitation and hygiene

By Uli Jaspers

As we enter this 12th year of the new millennium, we are struck by a stark reality: more than ten per cent of the world’s population has no access to a safe water supply, and over a third have no access to basic sanitation.

The overall failure to provide what is a human right, continues to undermine human dignity and equitable access to these most basic needs.  The chronic lack of access to water and sanitation services is claiming lives, especially among young children struck by preventable recurrent diseases in many rural and urban areas of the world’s less developed countries. The problem hits harder when the population is suffering from poor nutrition and food insecurity.

The last few years have seen enormous and welcome developments, as we and other development actors have collectively helped reduce by half those without access to safe water since 1990. Yet, we still foresee over 600 million people lacking access to safe water in 2015.

The lack of access to basic sanitation and improved hygiene lags well behind, and is often the most common factor in the incidence and spread of diseases such as cholera. Such acute disease remains on the rise, putting 1.4 billion people worldwide at risk. A study recently suggested that 100,000 people die each year from these diseases worldwide. Ten times previous estimates.

Sadly, as many as 8,000 children die each day – one every ten seconds – from water, sanitation and hygiene related diseases. This is a daily disaster which almost never reaches the headlines.

What we do and how we do it
Most disasters create a significant need for water, sanitation, hygiene, and emergency health interventions. Since 1990, we have steadily increased our capacity and experience in responding to such dire needs leading, in many cases, the recovery efforts. At grassroots level, through our network of volunteers and staff, and with standardised equipment and methodologies, and backed up with global tools, such as Emergency Response Units (ERU’s) for major disasters, we serve on average more than two million disaster affected people each year with water, sanitation, and hygiene promotion.

Since 2005, when we launched our ten-year Global Water and Sanitation Initiative (GWSI), our National Societies have significantly scaled-up sustainable long term programming to address ‘chronic’ water, sanitation and hygiene promotion needs. In this seventh year of the initiative, we have doubled our original target of serving five million people to over ten million at present, and intend to increase this to 15 million beneficiaries by 2015, with over 300 projects in 65 countries worldwide. Red Cross Red Crescent internal partnership and increased engagement with external stakeholders and working as auxiliary to governments has proven to be a key factor in scaling-up our efforts.

 What can still be done
We still need to maintain and improve our disaster response capacities to better address new and emerging threats and trends, such as climate variability and change, rapid urbanisation, increasing acute water and sanitation related diseases, and the increased threat of major urban disasters.

We also need to continue and further scale-up our community-based water and sanitation efforts in the developmental context. This will require increased resource mobilisation and partnership, more coherent measurement of sustainability, and harmonisation of our water, sanitation and hygiene promotion programming with complimentary projects such as those that address nutrition, food insecurity, and disaster risk reduction. 

Just as importantly, we need to increase the emphasis on providing basic sanitation and hygiene promotion to increase coverage using low cost and appropriate context-specific solutions.

Our Commitment:  water, sanitation and hygiene for all
Although we continue in our water, sanitation and hygiene promotion efforts to contribute to the UN Millennium Development Goals, we now commit ourselves to continue beyond 2015, to a time – sooner rather than later –  when all people, regardless of their location, ethnicity, wealth or gender can attain their human right to safe water, basic sanitation and improved hygiene.

Related stories

From toilet to table – sanitation solutions that help feed the rural poor

Human waste, water scarcity and food production might not seem to be mutually compatible, yet, ...

Water proves to be a lifeline as Haitians take control of their future

Before the 2010 earthquake, Haiti’s access to safe water was already amongst the lowest in ...

An oasis of hope in the Chad desert

Death lingers in the air in northern Chad. A flock of enormous vultures feast on a donkey lying ...

Providing the source of life

In many areas of the world, access to basic health care is limited and a lack of clean water ...

Mimi the Clown takes the hygiene message into Tunisia

What could possibly cheer up hundreds of adults and children staying in a transit camp near the ...