Water. We all underestimate its importance. It’s so readily available in the developed world, yet in developing nations people often spend hours each day finding water. Even then, the water may not be safe to drink.
Water is like air. We take air for granted, but polluted air often causes disease and illness. The same is the case for water. Billions of people across the world lack access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. One out of every five people does not have safe water to drink, and nearly one out of every two people doesn’t have access to a decent toilet. Children are the most affected by these circumstances.
I witnessed this every day in my medical practice in Nigeria. As a physician in my community, I would see children suffering from varying degrees of malnutrition, dehydration, diarrheal disease, malaria—all kinds of illness. I would see the same families return to the clinic week after week. At that time, in the 1970s, it was very common to prescribe supplemental foods, such as formula, to help with recovery. But unless the formula was mixed with safe drinking water, the children remained sick.
Following instruction, mothers would feed their children supplemental formula, but they didn’t sanitize their equipment or boil their water. That water was often contaminated with pathogens and disease. No wonder there were so many cases of diarrheal disease, so many cases of infant mortality. It was a vicious cycle.
At PATH, we work all over the world in places of poverty. In these places, sanitation and water supply are comingled. When you don’t have running water, it’s very likely that you also won’t have sufficient garbage collection or disposal of human waste. And because of the scarcity of water supply, families must store water at home. PATH has traditionally focused on developing and improving household water treatment and safe storage products—because if you can get the water clean, then you reduce the issues that arise from poor sanitation and water.
We also understand the need to enhance community-level water supplies and improve disposal and sanitation to keep disease away from the water supply. PATH believes in an integrated approach that combines these preventative measures with treatment to address diarrheal disease and other illnesses. This approach encourages country leaders to access all the tools at their disposal.
With the effects of global warming and changes in water patterns and droughts due to human activities, the world is more likely to fight over water resources in the future than anything else. There is no question that we’re in a precarious situation going forward. Availability of safe drinking water, especially for young children, will become increasingly important.
Solutions exist today, but a lot of individual effort needs to be put in place to bring them to people who need them most. Many water and sanitation services in developing countries are subsidized, but they need to be made a priority so that everyone can afford them. In addition, health groups and water and sanitation groups need to work together to overcome traditional barriers. In the past, sectoral divides have led to missed opportunities to join forces to promote a common message: water and sanitation interventions are critical to human health, especially children’s health.
That’s why PATH is working together with a coalition of nearly 30 groups from the water, sanitation, hygiene, and health sectors to raise awareness about this crisis, on World Water Day and beyond. We need to encourage donors, policymakers, and advocates to support both simple, existing interventions and the development of new technologies so that everyone has access to safe water.