As the world celebrates World Water Day today, UNICEF urges governments, civil society and ordinary citizens to remember that behind the statistics are the faces of children.
Globally, an estimated 2,000 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhoeal diseases and of these some 1,800 deaths are linked to water, sanitation and hygiene.
“Sometimes we focus so much on the big numbers, that we fail to see the human tragedies that underlie each statistic,” says Sanjay Wijesekera, global head of UNICEF’s water, sanitation and hygiene programme.
“If 90 school buses filled with kindergartners were to crash every day, with no survivors, the world would take notice. But this is precisely what happens every single day because of poor water, sanitation and hygiene.”
Almost 90 per cent of child deaths from diarrhoeal diseases are directly linked to contaminated water, lack of sanitation, or inadequate hygiene. Despite a burgeoning global population, these deaths have come down significantly over the last decade, from 1.2 million per year in 2000 to about 760,000 a year in 2011. UNICEF says that is still too many.
UNICEF child mortality data show that about half of under-five deaths occur in only five countries: India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Pakistan and China. Two countries – India (24 per cent) and Nigeria (11 per cent) – together account for more than a third of all under-five deaths. These same countries also have significant populations without improved water and sanitation.
Of the 783 million people worldwide without improved drinking water, there are 119 million in China; 97 million in India; 66 million in Nigeria; 36 million in DRC; and 15 million in Pakistan.
The figures for sanitation are even bleaker. Those without improved sanitation in these countries are: India 814 million; China 477 million; Nigeria 109 million; Pakistan 91 million; and DRC 50 million. Improvements in water and sanitation would greatly contribute to a reduction in child mortality in these counties.
“The numbers can be numbing, but they represent real lives, of real children,” says Wijesekera. “Every child is important. Every child has the right to health, the right to survive, the right to a future that is as good as we can make it.
“If, in the development community, we are not looking daily at the faces of little children, we will miss the mark by a considerable distance.”
Wijesekera says the progress already made since 1990 shows that with the political will, with investment, with a focus on equity and on reaching the hardest to reach, every child should be able to get access to improved drinking water and sanitation, perhaps within a generation.