Deaths from lack of sanitation need urgent attention - UN

2013-09-18 10:15
Effective sanitation service could result in a reduction of disease in the developing world, the UN has said. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Effective sanitation service could result in a reduction of disease in the developing world, the UN has said. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - Deaths from a lack of effective sanitation will continue to climb unless world leaders act to deliver basic health services, the UN has said.

"Roughly 80% of wastewater from human settlements or industrial sources is discharged untreated, contaminating oceans, lakes and rivers," UN deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said.

He argued that environmental neglect worsened the plight of vulnerable groups as they were more exposed to disease resulting from rampant pollution.

Eliasson quoted several studies that linked sanitation to poverty. The first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.

"They [studies] all identify universal access to sanitation as a top priority for poverty eradication and sustainable development and I would hope that these two pursuits - poverty eradication and sustainable development - would rather soon, converge," said Eliasson.


He said that one of the results of poor sanitation was disease like diarrhoea. He linked the disease to poverty, particularly in developing countries where there is a lack of basic service delivery.

"This pollution is expected to worsen with the rapidly increasing number of people living in cities along with growing industrial and agricultural activities.

"The effects on health are serious and for the individual, devastating. Poor sanitation and poor hygiene is the primary cause of diarrhoea," he said.

Eliasson said that the health of young children is most at risk from the lack of sanitation.

"Diarrhoea is, after pneumonia, the biggest killer of children under 5 in the world, responsible for 800 000 deaths each year. Around 2 000 children every day: I have to pause and let that sink in for you."

He argued that even if children who are exposed to early childhood disease do not die, they had to live with the negative consequences of illness and malnutrition which created a cycle of poverty.

"These children - millions and millions of children - fall behind when they go to school, if they go to school at all; they earn less when they grow up; they contribute less to their nation's well-being, and above all, they live less-full lives than us."


The cost of providing effective and sustainable water and sanitation solutions is high.

According to the draft National Water Resource Strategy, SA will require up to R670bn to beef up its entire water sector over the next 10 years, and there is a funding gap of R338bn.

In SA, AfricaCheck reported in July that 77 783 households in the Western Cape were not serviced with adequate sanitation.

In Hennenman township in the Free State province, residents rioted over continued use of the bucket system, despite politicians' promises of service delivery.

Around 272 995 bucket toilet systems are in operation in SA, despite the government's priority to have the system abolished.

"There was a time I thought the bucket system was gone... that it had exited our space, but this number came out when we were assessing the state of sanitation," said Richard Baloyi, former co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister.

Eliasson argued that the economic benefits far outweighed the cost of providing adequate water and sanitation.

"The economic benefits of meeting the MDG targets on water and sanitation amount to around $60bn annually. So you can also make the strong economic case apart from the humanitarian and moral.

"We also know that for every dollar spent on water and sanitation can bring you a five-fold return, mainly through diminished health costs and increased work productivity."

- Follow Duncan on Twitter
Read more on:    un  |  water  |  health

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