Shit Matters: Improving Access to Water Is Key to Child Survival

19/09/2013 13:03 | Updated 18 November 2013

Thursday morning

Alarm goes off... snooze

Alarm goes off for the second time... probably time to get up

Use toilet

Flush toilet

Wash hands

Turn shower on... water is freezing! Wait for water to warm up... hop back in the shower... ahh... lovely and warm...

Brush teeth... rinse sink

Hair... check... make-up... check... outfit... check

Still feeling very sleeping... fill kettle... boil kettle... let coffee brew on side

Just spotted dirty dishes piling up in the sink... quickly stack in the dishwasher

Find George drinking coffee I had prepared for myself... argh... fill kettle... boil kettle... keep a close eye on coffee, and George, this time

About to walk out the door when I remember the outfit I need for this evening is still in the laundry basket... quickly fill washing machine while downing coffee... ouch... burnt my tongue!

Look at watch... panic... only 9 minutes till I have to catch the train... and it's a 15 minute walk... run out the door

In just over an hour I have already used quite a significant amount of water. These early morning tasks are very much part of my daily routine that I rarely stop to appreciate how much I rely on water.

When I brought this up with my colleague Megan, the office serial tea-maker, we pondered for a while about how much water we actually use. It's something we use so unconsciously, that when we actually sat down to think about it, it was really difficult to remember all the times in the day we had used water for some task or another. So, we decided to challenge ourselves. The following Monday we tallied every single time we poured ourselves a glass of water, washed up a plate, flushed a toilet... essentially any task that required us to use water and at the end of the day compared our scores.

From the time I woke up to the time I went to bed I had already used water 29 times that day. To think if I use water 29 times on an average day, that's 203 times a week, 870 times a month and 10,556 times a year. For Megan, who had used water 44 times in a day, that would work out to 16,061 times in a year. When you think of it like that it's pretty shocking. Especially when you think that less than 1% of the world's water is fresh water, which we use for drinking, cooking washing, agriculture and industry (97% is salt water and 2% is ice and snow). Furthermore due to pollution and contamination a further two-thirds of that is unusable.

Life without access to water

How different would my mornings, my life for that matter, be if I didn't have such easy access to clean water and sanitation?

On a visit to Tanzania I was quite astonished about how early my neighbours would rise in the morning, sometimes as early as 5am. I later realised it was because there was no fresh water available in the vicinity, at least not for a few miles. Every other morning my neighbour would travel over half an hour, with a buggy full of water butts, to the closest water pump. She told me that the task of collecting water could take up to two or three hours. Sometimes she would spend up to an hour just waiting her turn to access the pump. Other times she would find the pump was not working and would have to travel to the neighbouring village to use their next pump. By the time she had filled up with water, the buggy was so heavy that it could take twice as long to get home. It's perhaps not surprising that women are estimated to spend 200 million hours a day collecting water.

While this may seem like an excessive amount of time to spend collecting water, for many it is the choice of a few hours travel or risk the dirty water that could kill their children. In fact, millions more people are completely without that choice. 783 million people are still without access to improved sources of drinking water and a further 2.5 billion people are still living without even basic sanitation. A lack of access to water and sanitation does not only have practical implications for day-to-day life, but can have significant health implications too.

Impact on child health

Of the 2.5 billion without access to basic sanitation almost 1 billion are children, for who the health implications are most severe. Poor water and sanitation put children at increased risk of diarrhoea and undernutrition. Both of which are major killers of children under five.

Diarrhoeal diseases are a particularly tragic consequence of poor access to water and sanitation, responsible for an estimated 580,000 deaths in children under five every year. Yet, the provision of improved sanitation and safe drinking water could reduce diarrhoeal diseases by nearly 90%, which is also key for tackling undernutrition.

Poor water and sanitation is also a key underlying cause of undernutrition, which claims the lives of 3.1 million children each year. According to the World Health Organisation some 50% of cases of undernutrition are caused by repeated diarrhoea or intestinal worm infections as a result of poor water and sanitation. A continuous presence of poor water and diarrhoea has contributed to the stunted growth of 165 million children worldwide, which can have serious and irreversible impact on the physical and mental development of children - impacting their cognitive ability, school performance and earning potential later in life.

Diarrhoea, both a cause and consequence of undernutrition, prevents children from catching up for stunting and malnutrition increases the frequency and the length of diarrheic episodes. Improving access to water and sanitation is key to breaking this vicious cycle.

Progress so far

We have indeed made some impressive strides in the last few years. Only last year we met the Millennium Development Goal, to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation. The vaccine against rotavirus, a major cause of diarrhoea, was introduced in 31 countries by the end of 2011. Only a few months ago, at the Nutrition for Growth event, $19billion was pledged towards improving nutrition through sensitive interventions, which includes improved water and sanitation.

But, 783 million people who are still without access to improved sources of drinking water and the 2.5 billion people who are still living without even basic sanitation. What's more, treating diarrhoea consumes on average 12% of African countries health budgets and undernutrition could cost the global economy $125 billion. Therefore, more needs to be done to prevent the incidence of water-borne diseases.

This must be done first and foremost through improving access to water and sanitation, but also in conjunction with other preventative efforts. Zinc, for instance, is key not only for improving nutrition but also as critical for the prevention of diarrhoea. Studies show that zinc supplementation results in a 25% reduction in duration of acute diarrhoea and a 40% reduction in treatment failure or death in persistent diarrhoea. Yet, coverage for zinc supplementation is less than 1%. Vaccines, along with other prevention and treatment measures, need to be scaled up and children living in rural and hard-to-reach areas should be a priority.

Access to clean water and sanitation, are not only key for reducing mortality, in resource-poor countries, but also for the health and development of children, families and communities. The UN recognises the right to water as a basic human right and necessary in order to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health. It is therefore not only a moral imperative that we work together towards increasing access to clean water, but it represents a fundamental way in which we can improve the lives of millions, while advancing the social and economic development of countries.

This blog was co-written with Megan Wilson-Jones, Health Advocacy Officer at RESULTS UK