21 March 2014

Africa: On World Water Day, Remember Those Without Taps and Toilets

Photo: Kristy Siegfried/IRIN
Victoria Nditondino holds up a jug of the dirty, brown water that her grandchildren have drawn from a distant well in southern Angola’s Cunene Province.


The rows upon rows of tents and caravans in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp represent one of the world’s most complicated challenges when it comes to water and sanitation.

This desolate stretch of Jordanian desert, 15 km from the Syrian border, houses more than 110,000 Syrian refugees through searing, hot sun and freezing desert winters.

Even more striking are the terrible conditions of an even greater number of refugees outside the camp, which outnumber the local population living in the north of the country. I was struck by its many difficult challenges during my visit there earlier this month.

Refugees outside the camp and the poor must purchase expensive water from private suppliers and some must relieve themselves in the open. The Jordanian government is overwhelmed by the demand.

The latest flood of refugees, of the many Jordan has hosted from regional conflicts, has turned Jordan into one of the three most water-scarce countries in the world.

The overwhelming task of delivering water and sanitation to both Jordan’s own people and thee refugees in need cannot be handled by the government alone. It is not yet summer, and the taps are already running dry most of the week already. We risk a public health crisis and internal unrest.

As we mark World Water Day on 22 March, this is just one of ever greater challenges in trying to secure the human right to safe water and sanitation.

From refugees of conflict, to those rebuilding in countries like Sierra Leone and Mali, to those who have been left behind by reasons of ethnicity or caste, gender, age or remote location - we know that we still have far to go.

There are today 768 million people still without access to improved water and another 2.5 billion without sanitation. It is a shocking statistic for such a basic human right.

But in the next year, we have a chance to make a difference. We can set a path to make the human rights to sanitation and water become reality.

This year, the UN will set its post-2015 development agenda. Different UN agencies and NGOs like WaterAid are working hard to make sure that the Sustainable Development Goals include universal access to water and sanitation as separate and ambitious goals, with a clear commitment to eliminate inequalities in access.

Though the UN’s original Millennium Development Goals met their target on water - to halve the number of people without access - the work is nowhere near complete. Appearances can be deceptive, quality of water has not been a consideration and the inequalities in this achievement are masked by statistics.

The target on sanitation is one of the most behind of all the development goals. At the present rate of progress, it will take more than 150 years for sub-Saharan Africa to reach its target.

And even in countries with extraordinary progress, it is the poorest and most marginalised who are still left without. There are massive inequalities in access across social groups, especially if you are a woman, or older, or disabled, or far from a city, or if you belong to an ethnic minority, or are migrant, or are poor.

Next month in Washington, DC, we will see government ministers from around the world, representing both donor and recipient nations, gather at the High Level Meeting for Sanitation and Water for All.

They will be pressed for renewed commitments, more accountability and transparency, and a focus on eliminating inequalities and sustainability - to make sure we reach everyone, everywhere with access to safe water and sanitation by 2030.

But as we undertake these high-level processes, we must listen to the voices of those still excluded from progress and make real differences to their lives.

On World Water Day, we can stand up and say that we do not accept that 1 billion people have no choice but to defecate daily in the open, that we do not accept the cost of hundreds of millions of school and work days lost yearly, that we do not tolerate 700,000 children under the age of five dying each year of diseases linked to lack of access to water and sanitation

Universal access to safe water and sanitation is within our reach. But we must act now, and ensure dignity for all.

Catarina de Albuquerque is the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation

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