The Blog

Remember Those Without Taps and Toilets

The rows upon rows of tents and caravans in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp represent one of the world's most complicated challenges when it comes to water and sanitation.

The rows upon rows of tents and caravans in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp represent one of the world's most complicated challenges when it comes to water and sanitation.

This desolate stretch of Jordanian desert, 15 km from the Syrian border, houses more than 110,000 Syrian refugees with no natural shade from the hot summer sun or cold desert winter. I was struck by its many difficult challenges during my visit there last month. Even more striking are the terrible conditions of refugees still outside the camp, who are forced to purchase water privately and must relieve themselves in the open.

Jordan is now one of the three most water-scarce countries in the world, exacerbated by successive waves of refugees from regional conflict. The overwhelming task of delivering water and sanitation to both Jordan's own people and these refugees in need cannot be handled by the government alone. Support is crucial to avoid a public health crisis and internal unrest. It is not yet summer, and the taps are already running dry most of the week already.

This is just one of the ever greater challenges in trying to secure the human right to safe water and sanitation. From refugees of conflict, to those rebuilding in countries like Sierra Leone and Mali, to those who have been left behind by reasons of ethnicity or caste, gender, age or remote location - we know that we still have far to go.

A woman and her child walk through the desert in Mali to reach water on the edge of their village. Fragile states like Mali struggle to provide safe water and sanitation to their people. Credit: Layton Thompson/WaterAid

The UN has said there are 768 million people still without access to improved water and another 2.5 billion without sanitation. Other research suggests as many as 2 billion are still drinking unsafe water. These are shocking statistics for such a basic human right.

Chance to make a difference

But in the next year, we have a chance to make a difference. We can set a path to make the human rights to sanitation and water become reality.

This year, the UN will set its post-2015 development agenda. Different UN agencies and NGOs like WaterAid are working hard to make sure that the Sustainable Development Goals include universal access to water and sanitation as separate and ambitious goals, with a clear commitment to eliminate inequalities in access.

Though the UN's original Millennium Development Goals met their target on water -- to halve the number of people without access -- the work is nowhere near complete. Appearances can be deceptive, quality of water has not been a consideration and the inequalities in this achievement are masked by statistics.

The target on sanitation is one of the most behind of all the development goals. At the present rate of progress, it will take more than 150 years for sub-Saharan Africa to reach its target.

And even in countries with extraordinary progress, it is the poorest and most marginalised who are still left without. There are massive inequalities in access across social groups, especially if you are a woman, or older, or disabled, or far from a city, or if you belong to an ethnic minority, or are migrant, or are poor.

Reaching everyone, everywhere

On 11 April in Washington, DC, we will see government ministers from around the world, representing both donor and recipient nations, gather at the Sanitation and Water for All High-Level Meeting. They will be pressed for renewed commitments, more accountability and transparency, and a focus on eliminating inequalities and sustainability - to make sure we reach everyone, everywhere with access to safe water and sanitation by 2030.

But as we undertake these high-level processes, we must listen to the voices of those still excluded from progress and make real differences to their lives.

We can stand up and say that we do not accept that 1 billion people have no choice but to defecate daily in the open, that we do not accept the cost of hundreds of millions of school and work days lost yearly, that we do not tolerate nearly 700,000 children under the age of five dying each year of diseases linked to lack of access to water and sanitation

Universal access to safe water and sanitation is within our reach. But we must act now, and ensure no one is left behind.