It is estimated that almost half of all people in the developing world (2.5 billion people) do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities. Poor water, sanitation and hygiene services have disastrous social consequences with a total of 2.4 million people dying every year of diarrhoea and other water borne-diseases. Unhealthy living conditions tend to exacerbate poverty levels as poor households loose on average 3 hours per day searching for clean water and a safe place to relieve themselves, thus missing out on work or school.
Women and girls pay the highest price when it comes to poor water and sanitation facilities. In many cultures, women are responsible for the daily supply of water and energy fuels for the household and often have to travel miles to reach the nearest water point. This results in increased insecurity issues, as women are at the mercy of attacks and sexual assaults when they distance themselves from their safe surroundings. Water collection does not only take a toll on women’s bodies, but also represents a great opportunity cost as women spend a great part of their day fetching water, and miss out more productive and income generating activities.
Moreover, the absence of improved sanitation facilities at home puts women at increased risk of violent attacks and unnecessary illness. When women have to wait until it gets dark to urinate or defecate in the open, they tend to drink less in the day, this resulting in major health problems such as urinary tract infections (UTIs).
Young girls are also acutely affected by the lack of adequate water and sanitation facilities. According to the United Nations and UNICEF, one in five girls of primary-school age are not in school, compared to one in six boys. One factor accounting for this difference is the lack of sanitation facilities for girls reaching puberty. Girls are also more likely to be responsible for collecting water for their family, making it difficult for them to attend school during school hours.
Periods of menstruation are a particular challenge for many women and young girls in developing countries as a number of them can’t afford tampons or sanitary pads to manage their menstruation. In Bangladesh, for example, a vast majority of women and girls use rags, also known as “nekra”, that are usually torn from old saris. There is no private place to change clean the rags, and often no safe water and soap to wash them properly. In addition, a culture of shame within their own family forces women and young girls to seek well hidden places to dry their rags, these are often dark, damp and unhealthy. Shahana’s story shows us how poor water and sanitation facilities can cause unnecessary deaths.
Shahana, an 11 year old girl, lived in a remote village in the Sariatpur district in Bangladesh. She was a grade IV student. She used rags for managing her menstrual blood. One day after school she came home, changed the soaked rag, washed and dried it under a bean tree for reuse. A harmful insect settled on the rag. Without noticing the insect, she used this rag the next day. Unfortunately the insect entered her body through the vagina. She felt a serious stomach pain and was taken to hospital. A week later, she died.
Yet it is undeniable that improved water, sanitation and hygiene services go hand in hand with reaching a number of the Millennium Development goals. Indeed, meeting the water and sanitation MDG targets (MDG 7: reduce by half the proportion of people without access to an improved water source or an improved sanitation facility), will not only help reduce poverty, but will also contribute to the achievement of a number of the other Goals particularly MDGs 2, 3, 4 and 5.
- Goal 2 Achieve universal primary education: water borne diseases such as diarrhoea and parasitic infections cost 443 million school days a year. Improving water and sanitation facilities in schools can help get more children into the educational system, especially girls, and improve their future prospects.
- Goal 3 Promote gender equality and empower women: improving access to water and sanitation services certainly contributes to reducing women’s time burden thus providing them with more time for productive and empowerment activities such as adult education.
- Goa 4 Reduce child mortality: 5,000 children die every day as a result of unclean water and poor sanitation. Improving water and sanitation helps save millions of lives every year.
- Goal 5 Improve maternal health: The provision of water and sanitation reduces the incidence of diseases and afflictions, such as anaemia and vitamin deficiency, that undermine maternal health.
Governments, NGOs, and international institutions are scaling up efforts to address global water and sanitation challenges. Although some progress has been made, particularly in some regions like Latin America and South Asia, progress is lower than needed, as Sub-Saharan Africa won’t meet the MDG sanitation target until 2040 given current trends. If we are eradicate extreme poverty, improving water, sanitation and hygiene systems should be the leading approach in the fight against poverty.