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World Toilet Day and the Need for Clean Water

by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
November 19, 2013

A woman carries water from the polluted Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad, India, May 2013 (Courtesy Reuters/Amit Dave). A woman carries water from the polluted Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad, India, May 2013 (Courtesy Reuters/Amit Dave).

The fact that a global water crisis is underway is likely unfathomable to many people living in developed countries, where getting clean water is as easy as turning on a faucet. But for those living in developing countries, water insecurity is a very real threat.

Although more than 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh and less than 1 percent is actually accessible, with the majority of the earth’s fresh water frozen in glaciers and icebergs. In other words, only a minuscule amount of fresh water is available to support a planet of almost seven billion people.

Nearly 800 million people in the world live without access to clean water, and 2.5 billion live without adequate sanitation. This means that the world is far from meeting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to halve the number of people living without access to improved sanitation facilities by the year 2015. In fact, a recent update on MDG-progress found that the world will likely miss the 2015 goal by about 500 million people. Today, on World Toilet Day, 15 percent of the global population still practices open defecation and nearly 3.5 million people die each year from water and sanitation-related diseases, with 99 percent of those deaths occurring in developing countries. Water-related illnesses kill 4,100 children under the age of five every day, and one child every twenty-one seconds.

In June 2013, a Water and Sanitation Program study sponsored by the World Bank found that children living in villages that received sanitation treatment were taller and therefore healthier than children that lived in villages without sanitation treatment. Drawing from their own research and other studies, the authors found that the taller children who benefited from the program were more likely to lead healthy and economically productive lives, and had greater potential to excel in school and work.

In India, one of the world’s most populous countries, clean water and sanitation facilities remain in short supply. Of the one billion people in the world that do not regularly use toilets or latrines, nearly 60 percent reside in India. India’s government and international organizations have taken an active role in trying to address this health risk. In 1999, the Indian government launched the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC), since renamed Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, to promote better sanitary habits and latrine construction.

Water.org, a nonprofit organization, is also at the forefront of addressing the global water crisis. Water.org recently announced an expanded partnership with the Caterpillar Foundation, which will allow the organization to bring its innovative WaterCredit model to three new countries: Indonesia, the Philippines, and Peru. WaterCredit, launched in 2003 in India, involves giving loans to families to help them pay for installing toilets or other forms of water infrastructure in their homes.

Women and girls are a “critical component” of the WaterCredit program, comprising 93 percent of its borrowers. This is unsurprising given that women and girls are responsible for 76 percent of water collection worldwide and bear the brunt of the global water crisis. Without easily accessible water, basic tasks typically assigned to women, such as cooking and washing, become daunting challenges that require hours of labor – time that could otherwise be spent earning an income or going to school. Water.org estimates that, worldwide, collecting water costs women 440 million school days a year and 220 million hours each day. The WaterCredit program gives women and girls the dignity of safe and private hygiene, while also freeing up time for education and work.

During a panel at the launch of the Water.org-Caterpillar Foundation partnership, actor, philanthropist, and Water.org co-founder Matt Damon explained that Water.org invests in women “because it works. Those are the investments that you get the best return on.” Caterpillar Foundation President Michele Sullivan agreed, stating: “Without question, [investing in women] is the best return on investment for the long term and it helps the country’s GDP…It helps everything in their country when you invest in women and girls.”

Programs like WaterCredit empower the world’s poorest, including women and children, to take control of their futures. For every dollar invested in water and sanitation programs, there is an $8 return in time, productivity, and reduced healthcare costs for the average family. Giving a family access to water, one of the most basic necessities, provides them with opportunities that would otherwise be lost.

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