International World Water Day
March 22, 2015 – This year’s World Water Day comes at a time when the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are being assessed and the international community is defining new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the years 2016 to 2030. These SDGs will guide global efforts to protect and develop water resources and to offer water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services to everyone within the next 15 years.
On this year’s World Water Day, we want to remind the international community that limited access to clean water causes challenges in delivering primary health care. Therefore access to drinking water and sanitation facilities must be included in disease prevention and primary health care programs.
748 million people remain without access to a reliable source of clean drinking water, 1 billion still practice open defecation, and 25 billion lack improved sanitation[i]. Water-borne diseases such as cholera therefore persist, especially in the most populous areas of low-income countries. It is therefore encouraging that the post-2016 Sustainable Development agenda seeks to address this.
Amref Health Africa is a premier development partner in initiatives for improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene for inclusive and sustainable growth in Africa. Between 2011 and 2014, we invested $47.2 million in 105 WASH projects. These projects integrated the prevention, control, and elimination of neglected tropical diseases, (NTD) and particularly blinding trachoma.
Investments in universal access to WASH are estimated to save over $134 billion in annual health costs, lost productivity, and mortality. Amref Health Africa has noted that, despite its importance, this is unfortunately among the most neglected areas in public health. As a result, the burden of water-related diseases continues to curtail efforts to improve public health in sub-Saharan Africa.
Diarrhea – most often related to unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene – is one of the leading causes of death among children under the age of five. In fact, diarrhea kills more children than malaria or HIV/AIDS. The World Health Organization estimates that exposure to inadequate drinking water, sanitation and hand hygiene was responsible for 58 per cent of deaths from diarrhea in 2014, adding up to 840,000 deaths in low and middle-income countries. This translates into 1.5 per cent of the global disease burden and 5.5 per cent for children under five.
There is also growing evidence that repeated exposure to unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene have a significant impact on stunting. This comes about as a result of intestinal worm infections, diarrheal diseases and poor nutrition. Cholera is also transmitted via contaminated water. Several cholera outbreaks have killed hundreds of people in Africa over the past few months, including about 87 in Malawi in 2015 alone.
From our experience working in communities for 57 years, Amref Health Africa believes that WASH programs can only have an impact on health if they are developed and managed in an integrated manner. Active involvement of public health professionals in hygiene, sanitation and water supply is crucial to accelerating and consolidating progress for health. Rather than focusing more on curative, disease-based approaches as is currently the case, key development actors in the health sector should streamline drinking water, sanitation and hygiene into preventative medicine. Through a push for increased funding and better policy design, tangible health benefits could be realized. And, most importantly, improvements will be made in the lives of millions of people in Africa to create lasting health change.
[i] The Lancet (2015) http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)60586-4/fulltext