Thursday, March 21, 2013

Too little, too much, too dirty!

By Chander Badloe, UNICEF Regional WASH Advisor 

In Myanmar, a father digs out water to feed his son with a coconut shell cup
© UNICEF/MAMA2010-00009/Oo
Everyone can agree that water is crucial to human survival, but how much time to we spend thinking about it? So for World Water Day, everyone is being urged to take a few moments to think about one of the most precious natural resource we all use on a daily basis – water.

The availability of water is often taken for granted. We expect water to flow out of taps in abundance at any time of the day. And, because of great progress in development, this is the fortunate situation for millions of people around the word, whether they live in big cities like Bangkok or in rural areas in Myanmar or Cambodia.

The 2012 UNICEF and WHO Joint Monitoring Report (JMP 2012) of Water Supply and Sanitation found significant progress in improving access to improved drinking water across the East Asia and Pacific region over the past 20 years. Regionally, 677 million more people have access to improved drinking water compared with 20 years ago. And some 823 million additional adults and children had access to improved sanitation facilities in 2010 compared to 1990, with China alone accounting for nearly 593 million.

I attended the 2013 Asia Water Week organized by the Asian Development Bank  at their Headquarters last week, (13-15 March 2013). The event was attended by around 600 participants from various agencies and countries, mainly from the Asia-Pacific region. During the meeting, there were at least 18 side events, each focusing on key areas in the Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) sector ranging from Integrated Water Resources Management, Urban Water Services, and Agriculture Water Management  to areas much more at UNICEFs heart such as Rural Water Services  and Advancing Rural Sanitation Services.

A girl draws water from a well in Gansu Province of China
© UNICEF/China/2009/Hao Zhiming
Despite the progress we have witnessed over the last two decades and the commitment of the international community at the ADB meeting, it is clear that massive challenges remain with hundreds of millions of people in the region left without access to clean water. Highlighting the scale of the challenges, the Programme Handbook stated that “in Asia-Pacific region, almost 500 million people currently live in water poverty which means that their nearest source of clean, safe water is either far away, unclean or unaffordable”.

In East Asia and Pacific, regional data shows that around 200 million people still don’t have access to improved water and around 671 million people remain without access to improved sanitation — more than in sub-Saharan Africa.  An estimated 100 million people still practice open defecation, with three countries from this region among the 12 countries in the world with the largest populations practicing open defecation, i.e. Indonesia, 2nd in the world with 63 million, China – 14 million and Cambodia – 8.6 million. We also see significant disparities in access levels between urban and rural populations, poorest and richest quintiles prevail in the region. The graph below highlights how “national averages” mask large disparities between countries and within countries (urban-rural and poor-rich).


The economic costs of poor sanitation and hygiene in East Asia and the Pacific run into the billions of dollars – including an estimated 9.2 billion dollars for Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, the Philippines, and Viet Nam alone – undermining national development, and children’s development, in every way.


The Asia-Pacific region is also the most disaster-prone region in the world. It has the highest death toll from disasters, accounting for 82% of global fatalities between 1975 and 2011 (ADRC, 2011). It also suffers by far the worst economic impact, incurring almost 90% of global economic costs from disasters in the same period. In 2011 alone, the Asia Pacific region suffered a record US$276 billion in damages (Guha-Sapir et al., 2012) — mostly from the tsunami in Japan. The frequency and severity of floods, landslides, typhoons is increasing, having an immediate impact on the availability of safe, clean water sources and sanitation facilities.

As diarrhoea is one of the main causes of under 5 child mortality  in the region, UNICEF remains committed to supporting our national partners to meet these water and sanitation challenges. A situation we can classify as “too much, too little and too dirty”. Coming from a rural village myself that had no running water, no flush latrines, and no electricity, I know what this means for children and families in daily life. We increasingly see that while some communities have plenty of clean water, others suffer drought. I hope that on days like World Water Day, we all take a moment and think of the millions who don’t have these basic needs met or see their needs threatened.

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