Access to water and sanitation should no longer be “all about luck”
Our Readers' Opinions
March 26, 2010
Access to water and sanitation should no longer be “all about luck”


by Uli Jaspers, head of the water, sanitation and emergency health unit, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Geneva

Her name is Widline. She is one of the thousands of Haitian children affected by the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince in January. Next to the camp which is now her home, Widline often comes to the water distribution centre set up by Haitian National Red Cross Society volunteers with technical support of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies from all over the world. It is currently the only access she and her family have to clean water, a vital element that helps keep them safe from diseases and from the risk of epidemics that can also turn deadly.{{more}} In this sense, seen from the outside and compared to others children in Haiti, Widline could almost be considered lucky – lucky to be alive and to benefit from basic assistance.

However, the truth is that Widline is definitely unlucky. Not just because her house was destroyed by the earthquake but, even more importantly, because she was born in one of the world’s poorest countries. In Haiti, mother and child mortality is high and diseases are often endemic, further fuelled by poor access to health services, housing, inadequate water and sanitation as well as urban and political violence. This reality faced by millions of Haitians certainly did nothing to prepare them to face such a devastating disaster.

In July 2009, the IFRC issued an advocacy report called “The epidemic divide”. It showed how people are definitely not equal when confronted with diseases such as outbreaks of diarrhoea. Depending whether they are rich or poor, and due to a shortage of health facilities, personnel, clean water, and awareness and preparedness, they might survive or perish and they can do very little about it. The report also highlighted the fact the economic consequences of epidemics in developing countries were also becoming an even heavier burden.

While we provide emergency assistance to victims of the earthquake in Haiti and help them wound both their physical and emotional scars, I believe this disaster should also be a turning point and have decision makers “changing minds” by rethinking the way they often undertake disaster response.

Bringing emergency help is obviously essential. However, even though we do not know when exactly Haiti will be hit again by an earthquake, we are all aware that this is a disaster-prone country, affected by powerful cyclones almost on an annual basis. So why don’t we use the current tragedy to shift from a purely disaster response approach to a vision that also includes building up the resilience of communities, making them better prepared for the next crisis?

Health is one of those areas where a lot can be achieved at the community level. Making sure Haitians and people living in other disaster-prone countries have a well-equipped and maintained water and sanitation system will make it easier to quickly restore basic services when another disaster strikes.

Access to clean water will also reduce the spread of diseases and epidemics. Working at the community level with local trained volunteers to inform communities about better hygiene and how to quickly react and protect themselves when a disaster strikes will not only reduce the number of dead and injured but also considerably lower the financial cost of the emergency response itself.

Linking water and sanitation activities and programmes more tightly with other health activities such as emergency health, preparedness, and community-based health interventions will maximise the effect of both. A holistic approach that makes water available, improves sanitation, focuses on access to health services, and informs communities on how they can help themselves is the direction to take.

The time to act is now. As we celebrate World Water Day, I call on all stakeholders to collaborate with us and help little Widline and her family to believe in their future, by making Haiti a healthier and better place to live. After all, access to clean water, sanitation and health education should not just be “all about luck”, depending on the place you were born. It is a human right that should be given to each and every one, rich and poor.