By Pi James
World Water Day, commemorated each year on 22 March, focuses attention on the importance of freshwater to sustainable dev. World Water Day 2012 emphasizes the importance of water to global food security.
NEW YORK, USA, 21 March – UNICEF and the World Health Organization recently announced that the world had met the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water, well ahead of the 2015 deadline.
In the lead-up to World Water Day on 22 March, UNICEF podcast moderator Femi Oke spoke with Murat Sahin, UNICEF advisor on the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in Schools initiative, and Alexander Schratz, the Executive Director of Fit for School, a Philippines-based NGO, about how much progress has been made and what this means for children.
Two billion people with improved water access
Both guests stressed the importance of meeting this MDG target, which means that over 2 billion people gained access to improved water sources between 1990 and 2010. However, they acknowledged there is still a long way to go, particularly in meeting the sanitation-related target.
“It’s definitely encouraging to see that, globally, we’re making so much progress. But, of course, it will take a lot of efforts by all the stakeholders involved to really make an impact at a grassroots level and to demonstrate that those people most in need are also benefiting from this global progress,” Mr. Schratz said.
Mr. Schratz said there are many areas in the Philippines where more than 300 students have to share one toilet, and that across the country around 20 per cent of elementary schools do not have access to water. “It’s not just an issue of water and sanitation, but really it’s an issue of health and improving their education,” Mr. Schratz said.
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Mr. Sahin agreed. “The WASH in Schools program doesn’t only contribute to MDGs related to sanitation and water but [also] to achieving universal primary education and promoting gender equality and empowering women,” he said. “Access to water and sanitation in the schools means girls do not drop out of school because they have the privacy and dignity they need when they are reaching adulthood.”
Mr. Schratz added, “The government has the power to really provide basic infrastructure and at the same time provide an environment in which children can practice hand-washing, where they can learn something that they can benefit [from] for the rest of their lives, even act as agents of change when they go back home to their families.”
Resilience in emergencies
Mr. Sahin said that during emergencies, schools often become shelters for internally displaced peoples (IDPs). Therefore, it is important that the water and sanitation facilities have the capacity to absorb high demand and that children are trained in sanitary practices, particularly in natural disaster-prone countries.
“Hand-washing with soap is the best vaccine against cholera or against water borne diseases or outbreaks, and in emergencies people are condensed in the same places,” he said.
Overcoming the challenges
According to Mr. Sahin, one of the major hurdles to meeting the sanitation target is that discussing sanitation is viewed as taboo in many communities.
“The biggest challenge is in the social norms, in the way the people see sanitation,” Mr. Sahin said.
Mr. Schratz concurred, adding that there are also financial concerns and issues of sustainability. “I think that’s what we have to tackle first of all to find solutions that are affordable, scalable and at the same time provide an environment [in which] children actually get to use those toilets,” Mr. Schratz said.
Mr. Sahin concluded, “It’s really important to continue to celebrate the success that we have achieved – the goal on water – to celebrate the success that sanitation is more recognised, but also build on our advocacy efforts so that the ministries of education, so that the ministries of health and water, work hand-in-hand to achieve universal access to WASH facilities and good hygiene promotion in schools, so that all children can grow with privacy, dignity, to their full potential.”