“Water for Life”: A World Ethic Emerging

Ray Waddle

The reality is stark: 2.5 billion people have no usable, hygienic toilet, and 1.1 billion practice open defecation.

The result: rampant disease and hazard. Women especially are vulnerable when they have to relieve themselves in public. They risk rape and abuse when there’s no access to private sanitation conditions.

Recent United Nations reports sketch a global trauma. Almost half of developing countries suffer from health problems caused by poor water and sanitation. Unhealthy water and poor sanitation, taken together, are the planet’s second biggest killer of children.

The world is waking up to these dire conditions. The moral blueprint of the United Nations’ Millennial Development Goals, first forged in 2000, is seeing progress. MDGs include reducing poverty and child mortality, combatting HIV/AIDS, and promoting gender equality and earth sustainability. Another aim: 75 percent of the world should see improved sanitation by 2015.

By now, some 2.3 billion people have new access to better sources of drinking water. More than half of the world’s population, almost four billion people, can now claim the highest level of water access – a piped water connection in their homes. Open defecation rates have declined to 14 percent.

Nevertheless, some MDG goals are falling short – notably the sanitation target, a lack of toilets and hand-washing access for fighting disease.

Globally, more than 80 percent who practice open defecation live in 10 countries: China, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sudan, Niger, Nepal, Indonesia, and Mozambique.

Acknowledging the scale of the crisis, the UN augmented the MDG water goal in 2003 by proclaiming 2005-2015 as the International Decade for Action: “Water for Life.”

One leading advocate says the MDGs have been historic and inspirational but also have a blind spot: Despite their ambitions, they didn’t address ways to reduce brutal inequalities. The most disadvantaged groups, often in rural areas, have fallen behind in access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

“Substantial disparities exist, between rich and poor, between and within countries, and between those living in rural areas and those in formal urban settings,” says Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation.*

Water use is about 200-300 liters a person per day in most European countries, while the average is less than 10 liters a day in Mozambique.

“People lacking access to improved water in developing countries consume far less, partly because they have to carry it over long distances and water is heavy,” a UN report says.**

The ordeal of inequality persists in various regional surveys. In Senegal, a study of 5,000 schools showed there was no water supply at most of them, and no sanitation facilities at almost half of them. Among the schools with sanitation, only half had separate facilities for boys and girls.

The result: “Girls chose not to utilize these facilities, either because they did not want to risk being seen to use the toilet, or because they were warned that these facilities were not private or clean enough. Girls also avoided drinking water at school to avoid urination, thereby becoming dehydrated and unable to concentrate,” the report says.

Such imbalances exact other costs. People living in the slums of Jakarta, Manila, and Nairobi pay five to 10 times more for water than those living in high income areas in those same cities and more than consumers in London or New York, the UN reports. In Manila, the cost of connecting to the utility represents about three months’ wages for the poorest 20 percent of households. In urban Kenya, it is six months’ income.

The UN and other organizations argue for standards that define the right to clean water:

• Between 50-100 liters of water per person per day are needed to meet basic needs, says the World Health Organization.

• The water source should be within about half a mile of home, and collection time should not exceed 30 minutes. Yet the average distance that women in Africa and Asia walk to collect water is nearly four miles.

• Water costs should not exceed 3 percent of household income.

Through 2015, the goal of “Water for Life” is to quicken world commitment to long-term sustainable water management and improved sanitation. Initiatives include international conferences, governmental action, educational outreach, and congregational advocacy.

The process is now underway to give shape to the successor to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals. An international symposium will be held in Sydney, Australia, in November to work out a framework for these goals into the future.