22 March 2008

Africa: Leadership Must Now Wake Up


Nairobi — The curtain rolls on the week today as the world marks two crucial days. Some countries chose to mark the World Water Day - when we reflect on the global problem of lack of access to clean water - on Thursday because of the Easter celebrations.

On Saturday, by coincidence, the globe also observes the International Year of Sanitation, which the United Nations declared last year.

The problem of unsafe water and inaccessibility to the vital commodity, coupled with poor sanitation, is monstrous. It is scandalous and maddening, particularly when the horrifying statistics are recited, even at the risk of sounding monotonous. Each time they are repeated, they probably fall into the usual fold of global statistics.

But the gravity of the problem cannot be gainsaid, given the UN's estimate that every 20 seconds, a child dies due to poor sanitary conditions. Each year, the UN reports, poor sanitation and unsafe water claim the lives of 1.5 million children. Humankind's biggest hurdle remains the deplorable failure to turn around the lives of the 2.6 billion people - half the population of the developing world - that has no access to basic sanitation.

A preliminary report by the WHO/Unicef Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, released to coincide with the festivity, showed 62 per cent of people in Africa do not have access to a proper toilet. Overall, at least 40 per cent of the global population do not have access to ablution facilities, and the safety and dignity they provide.

Of the 2.6 billion who lack proper sanitation, 1.2 billion cannot access safe drinking water. "As a result, tainted water supplies are blamed for the worldwide deaths of 1.8 million children," says the United Nation's Human Development Report for 2006. This translates to 4,900 children under the age of five, per day. This figure is equivalent to the number of children under five who live in New York and London combined!

Water-related illness

The UN also observes that worldwide, children miss 443 million days of school each year because of water-related illnesses. The global organisation further estimates that patients suffering from water-borne diseases occupy half of the world's hospital beds.

The statistics could be searing to the ear but because the problem persists with its attendant incapacitation and even deaths, they have to be repeated. First is to alert global governments on the magnitude of the problem whose solution is public sensitisation and modest investment in cheap water supply and purification systems. The other solution is investing in cheap but effective sewerage disposal systems particularly in the congested informal urban settlements. This would predictably remove the strain on the public health care system and free more resources to improve medical provision.

The water and sanitation challenges are at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals programme under implementation by the developing world, and whose ideal cut-off line for halving the global nightmare is 2015.

Sadly, this week UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reminded world leaders: "We are nowhere near on pace to achieve that goal."

Mr Ki-moon bemoaned a global lack of political will to tackle the issue, which is Africa's root cause of all her afflictions including poverty and political and social problems.

It is appalling that what could be the simplest of global problems has turned out the hardest. The concession by the Ki-moon that the political leadership has failed us on this front should be a wake-up call to go back to the drawing board. The MDG initiative must be achieved. We owe it to mother Africa, and the leadership of the continent most wronged must arise and break the shackles. It is a duty and honour for Africa.

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