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What It Will Take to Deliver Safe Water for All


Caryl M. Stern

President and CEO, UNICEF USA

Imagine you are a 9-year-old girl living in rural Ethiopia. There is no running water in your home, no well from which to draw, and so each day you are sent to fetch water for the family on foot.

You don’t have time for school because you are too busy making sure there is enough safe water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning, and the nearest available, safely managed water source is miles away.

This is not a childhood, yet it remains an all-too-common plight for millions of children — mostly girls, but boys, too — growing up today.

Inequalities persist

To be sure, global efforts to improve water quality and access in vulnerable communities have made significant progress over the past two decades. In 2017, 71 percent of the world’s population had access to safely managed drinking water services, up from 61 percent in 2000. That means about 2.2 billion people are still left without.

There are striking gaps in sanitation and hygiene as well. In 2017, less than half of the world’s population (45 percent) had access to a toilet that was connected to a sanitation system that supported safe waste disposal — an increase from 28 percent in 2000 but still far below where it needs to be. And 2 out of 5 people in the world lacked regular access to soap and water for handwashing — one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to prevent the spread of disease.

A big factor

Climate change is a big factor in water scarcity and related issues. This is why organizations like UNICEF are accelerating efforts with partners in government, civil society, and both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors to implement innovative solutions; new infrastructure, systems, and services that can better withstand extreme weather events and other natural disasters.

Some technologies include drought-resistant deep boreholes, solar-powered pumping systems, and flood-resistant toilets.

We must keep working to advance climate-proof solutions for the most vulnerable places, to close the gaps in access and to prevent future shortages. Consider Chennai, India, where this year a delayed and brief monsoon season failed to replenish crucial reservoirs, creating desperation and chaos across the city, We must work within communities to build resilience and preparedness ahead of future climate-related emergencies.

In 2015, the international community committed to delivering safe water and sanitation for all as part of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. To achieve these goals, we must pick up the pace on closing the disparities that exist between the rich and poor, rural and urban. We’ll need to strengthen systems in sustainable ways, which will take community empowerment and participation, and local stewardship. If we fail, the world’s poorest children will continue to bear the brunt of water scarcity and remain at risk of being left behind.

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Caryl M. Stern, President and CEO, UNICEF USA, [email protected]

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