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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2619

Dirty Water Kills 4,000 Children a Day

By Thalif Deen - Inter Press Service

United Nations, 29 Sptember (IPS): The statistics are mind-boggling: of the more than six billion people in the world today, over one billion have no access to improved drinking water -- a basic necessity for human life -- and about 2.6 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation.

And according to the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, polluted water and lack of basic sanitation claim the lives of over 1.5 million children every year, mostly from water-borne diseases.

"Despite commendable progress," says UNICEF executive director Ann Veneman, "an estimated 425 million children under 18 still do not have access to an improved water supply, and over 980 million do not have access to adequate sanitation."

She said those who die are by no means the only children affected. "Many millions more have their development disrupted and their health undermined by diarrhoeal or water-related diseases."

In a 33-page report titled "Progress for Children: a Report Card on Water and Sanitation" released Thursday, UNICEF says these "tragic statistics" underscore the need for the world to meet its commitment to one of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

The other goals include a 50 percent reduction in extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; promotion of gender equality; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and ensuring environmental sustainability. A summit meeting of 189 world leaders in September 2000 pledged to meet all of these goals by the year 2015.

Overall, the statistical snapshot of the world's progress towards MDG targets for water and sanitation "offers a mixed message", UNICEF warns.

"We cannot be satisfied with current performance," Veneman said. "And we cannot afford to lose the opportunity presented by the Millennium Agenda to transform the lives of the most vulnerable children."

She said the international community lacked both sufficient resources and resolve to meet the U.N. goals -- "and it is hard to think of a more potent reason to redouble our efforts than the thought of more than 1.5 million children every year who will not live to see their fifth birthday," Veneman added.

According to estimates by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, developing nations need at least 11.3 billion dollars a year to meet low-cost basic levels of service for both drinking water and sanitation by the year 2015. And more than 80 percent of the total resources will be needed in Asia and Africa.

In a detailed breakdown of numbers, UNICEF said that unsafe drinking water, inadequate availability of water for hygiene and lack of access to sanitation together contribute to about 88 percent of deaths from diarrhoeal disease, or more than 1.5 million of the 1.9 million children under five who perish from diarrhea each year.

This amounts to 18 percent of all under-five deaths and means that more than 5,000 children are dying every day as a result of diarrhoeal diseases.

On a more positive note, UNICEF points out that four developing regions -- East Asia/Pacific, Middle East/North Africa, South Asia and Latin America/Caribbean -- are on track to meet their MDG targets for safe water.

But current progress rates in sub-Saharan Africa and in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) "will leave those regions short".

"The remarkable progress in South Asia and Latin America/Caribbean has placed them on the verge of achieving their drinking-water goals 10 years early," UNICEF said.

In both regions, the number of people without access shrank between 1990 and 2004 -- in South Asia from 326 million to 222 million, and in Latin America/Caribbean from 74 million to 50 million.

Still unsafe levels of arsenic have been found in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. "The problem is greatest in Bangladesh, where it was discovered that more than 30 percent of the tube wells sunk in recent decades are contaminated with arsenic above the nationally recommended level," the report says.

The UNICEF report singles out sub-Saharan Africa -- which represents about 11 percent of the world population -- where almost a third of all people live without access to safe drinking water.

Meanwhile, three regions, namely East Asia/Pacific, Middle East/North Africa and Latin America/Caribbean are also on track to meet their MDG targets on basic sanitation.

But the largest gains have been registered in South Asia, where access to improved sanitation facilities more than doubled, from 17 percent in 1990 to 37 percent in 2004, and in East Asia/Pacific, from 30 percent to 51 percent.

According to UNICEF, these improvements were primarily driven by gains made in two of the world's most populous nations: India and China. But still low levels of sanitation remain one of Asia's biggest public health threats.

The UNICEF report, however, gives a clean bill of health for the world's industrialized nations, which have reached nearly universal levels of coverage for both water and sanitation.

In many of the European countries with transitional economies, water and sanitation infrastructure still needs to be developed or improved. "And all industrialized countries face a substantial challenge in financing the replacement of decaying and leaking infrastructure, which is long overdue for renovation in many cases."

- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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