Water, sanitation and good hygiene practices are fundamental to healthy life. Our collective aim is to ensure every family has affordable and sustainable access to safe water and adequate sanitation. Despite major progress in this ambition over recent years, the poorest and most vulnerable, especially in countries where government or infrastructure is dysfunctional, still suffer with inadequate facilities. And we know that this is a major factor which causes death or poor health, reduces productivity, impacts upon nutrition and undermines personal dignity.
For example, the provision of safe water and adequate sanitation have been vital in the response to cholera and, as shown in large scale cholera eradication efforts such as in Mexico in the 1990s, tackling this one disease leads to a massive reduction – by more than half – in overall diarrhoeal disease rates. This informs our approach to fighting current outbreaks of cholera and preventing future ones. The best way to deal with present and future epidemics is to bring water and sanitation coverage up to adequate levels, while also working with people and communities to raise awareness of good hygiene practices. It is our first, and perhaps most effective, intervention. Of course, the people most vulnerable to cholera outbreaks are often the poorest.
To be effective, first we have to respond to the long-term chronic issues such as lack of access to water and sanitation, and secondly, we must increase the capacity for disease monitoring to deal with short-term, or ‘acute’ crises at all levels, from household to government. But this will mean nothing if we cannot at the same time find solutions to problems of food security and nutrition in communities. Solutions that focus particularly on children, whose physical and mental growth depend on nourishing food, safe water and adequate sanitation.
This is a task which can’t be done in isolation, and so we work closely with governments, UN agencies and other organizations focused on water, sanitation and hygiene promotion, as well as the affected communities themselves, to tackle the issue. It needs forward planning, long-term commitment and a genuinely collaborative mindset.
We are ready to do our part and through our vast network of National Societies and local branches, we have a presence in millions of communities and experience in delivering the right technical solutions based on need. The Global Water and Sanitation Initiative, which was launched in 2005, has supported over 20 million people through long-term programmes and a similar number in acute situations.
In concert with many others, we hope to reach 100 per cent coverage, but there is quite a way to go. Many people still don’t have access to even a basic toilet let alone clean water. Many people are still exposed to diseases that should be simple to prevent and treat.
To date 105 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies carry out 500 long term water, sanitation and hygiene awareness projects in over 80 countries, and in addition to this regularly respond to water, sanitation and hygiene needs in acute crises, such as population movement, the effects of droughts, floods and severe weather, as well as seismic events.