March 22 is World Water Day, a day established by the United Nations to look at water issues around the world. At AMREF we use this day to raise awareness of the fact that 11 per cent of the world's population does not have safe water to drink and that this, coupled with poor sanitation, results in 4,000 children dying every day. We draw attention to something most of us take for granted, even though it is absolutely fundamental to our daily lives – safe water. There are still nearly one billion people worldwide without access to clean water.
The theme of the World Water Day this year is Water and Food Security. Food and water are essential elements that all human beings must have access to in order to live. Access to food that is sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe as well as water that is sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable are fundamental human rights that for many people remain a promise unfulfilled. Globally, some estimated 2.6 billion people do not use improved sanitation facilities (WHO, UNICEF, 2010) and around 925 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished (FAO, 2010).
Lack of safe drinking water and sanitation impact negatively on access to proper nutrition and food security. Open defecation, poor sanitation facilities and improper waste disposal contaminate food in many communities in Africa. At the same time, unsafe drinking water and poor hygiene frequently lead to increases in diarrhoeal diseases, rendering efforts to improve nutrition ineffective. Unless urgent and concerted action is taken, the situation is likely to get worse in years ahead as populations increase and water sources get more scarce. To meet the dietary demands of a growing world population, projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, world food production would need to increase by 70 per cent (FAO, 2009). A great deal of the population growth will take place in urban areas, leading to a substantial increase in urban food demand, and requiring safe and productive management of increased volumes of organic waste, human excreta and wastewater.
Ensuring that people have access to adequate nutrient-rich food and safe water is essential for protecting the safety, health and well-being of everyone, especially expectant mothers and children. Not only is water necessary to sustain life, but proper nutrition is also required to ensure optimal health. Consumption of a wide variety of foods, with adequate vitamin and mineral intake, is the basis of a healthy diet. Children under the age of five are most vulnerable to malnutrition. Undernutrition causes weakness and fatigue, inhibits mental and physical development, particularly in children (where it also causes stunting), and increases susceptibility to other fatal diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhoea.
But even when food consumption is sufficient, diarrhoeal diseases inhibit nutrient absorption, which can lead to malnutrition. That is why AMREF on this World Water Day joins the world in advocating for safe water and sanitation for all to ensure lasting health change in Africa. Reductions in diarrhoeal diseases can be achieved by providing improved sanitation and water supply, which in turn can prevent long-term illness and save at least 860,000 children from dying of malnutrition each year.
Achieving sustainable increases in food production to alleviate poverty and eradiate hunger requires sound management of critical inputs like water and land, making linkages between agriculture, food security, health, water management, and safe drinking water programmes essential. To this end, AMREF calls for the integration of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programming with child survival interventions to reduce the number of child deaths caused by diarrhoeal diseases. We also advocate for initiatives to increase awareness of the importance of simple hand washing, an element of hygiene programming that can reduce the incidence of childhood diseases by approximately 45 per cent.