Sep 24 2009
WASHINGTON—Dirty water is killing kids–lots of kids. The magnitude of the deaths is staggering, perhaps 5,000 a day, 1.8 million a year – more deaths annually than the combined total from malaria, measles and HIV/AIDS.
And who’s talking about it? Who is outraged? Practically no one. It is a problem that is virtually unknown in the United States and Europe. The victims are poor children in poor families throughout most of Africa and in remote parts of Asia.
Specialists in water and health are working on the problem and spending lots of money. But some experts say that progress has been meager and that the situation could be getting even worse.
The deaths come quickly and simply. Kids drink the only water they can get. It is loaded with bacteria. They get diarrhea, which is a manifestation of many diseases, including cholera. They get dehydrated and before their parents realize how bad things have gotten the kids are gone. Some grownups die, too. But mostly the 1.8 million victims annually are children, five years old and younger. Millions of kids don’t die from diarrhea. But their illnesses strain already strained hospitals and clinics. By some estimates kids sick with diarrhea miss nearly 300 million school days a year.
This has been going on for decades, almost unbelievable rates of death and sickness among millions of kids. They and their families cannot solve the problem on their own. And they are not getting enough help to break the pattern. They are stuck in a vast pool of nearly 1 billion people around the world who do not have dependable access to clean water every day. Most of them are also among the 2.5 billion people who do not have even the most basic toilets. Without a good supply of clean water and without toilets, disease, sickness and death are almost guaranteed.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which works in the most awful places and is not given to hysteria, said earlier this year that it had been seeing an increase in cases of water-related diseases that cause diarrhea, including cholera. Uli Jaspers, the head of water and sanitation for the federation at its headquarters in Geneva, said in a statement that “data suggests we may be losing the battle.”
Hundreds if not thousands of people in government and private agencies are devoting their energies to stopping the silent epidemic. Often times the work is one person, one-village, one school at a time. Paul Faeth, the president of Global Water Challenge, a group of organizations here in Washington committed to working against water-related diseases, is getting soap and water to schools in Africa. Sally Cowal, a water expert at Population Services International, also in Washington, provides several low-cost ways of purifying water. They are both having successes, they said at a conference here presented by UPI.com, the Internet incarnation of a former news agency that competed with the Associated Press and Reuters. But they also acknowledge that what they are doing is not enough.
Katherine Bliss, a deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said at the UPI conference that about $18 billion a year is needed to meet the United Nations’ goal of deeply reducing the problem of water and disease or about three times more than is now being spent worldwide.
But the barrier to a solution is not just money. Often people with the best intentions are working at cross purposes. According to a recent report by several environmental groups, including units of the United Nations and the Nature Conservancy, efforts around the world to provide clean water and sanitation are “plagued by institutional fragmentation that may result in governmental agencies working against each other” in pursuit of their own strategic objectives.
There is no coordinating body or global clearing house for work related to water, Ms. Bliss said, no one seeing that the work of governments and non-governmental organizations complement each other, don’t duplicate, don’t cancel out some other effort. For HIV/AIDS there is the United Nations organization, UNAIDS. Tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS come under the aegis of the Global Fund to Fight Aids. Water has no similar counterpart.
“Within the United Nations,” Ms. Bliss said, “water and sanitation activities are managed across 26 different technical agencies.” And no one is in charge. The work of the agencies is officially coordinated by the United Nations Water Office. But it does not have enough clout to have much impact.
For now, this is a problem that looks like it can be fixed. But it is a problem that is not getting the attention, the money and the coordination it needs. #