An ethically intolerable solution in the 21st century

By Bernardo Kliksberg (for Safe Democracy)

4,900 children died every day in 2006. 1,800,000 died during that entire year. What killed them? Among several killers, the foremost is a lack of access to clean drinking water. Diarrhea is the second greatest cause of infant mortality around the world. How can we condemn an entire portion of the human race to these mortal risks? Bernardo Kliksberg believes that the issue is not linked solely to a lack of water, but is largely related to the absence of international will to find a solution. The lack of clean drinking water is an offense to mankind and is ethically intolerable especially in the technologically advanced 21st century. In Kliksberg‘s opinion, water must become a priority on our collective agenda.

Bernardo Kliksberg is one of the foremost world experts on the fight against poverty. He is a special advisor to the UN, UNDP, UNESCO, UNICEF and other international organizations, as well as being the author of hundreds of technical articles, and numerous books published worldwide, the most recent being an international best seller, “More Ethics, More Development”. He has advised the administrations of over 30 countries, including a number of presidents, and numerous public civil society and business organizations.

1.1 BILLION PEOPLE BEGAN THE NEW YEAR OF 2007 WITHOUT ACCESS TO WATER. 2.6 billion do not have access to appropriate sanitary installations. The consequences will be disastrous.

In 2006, 4,900 children died everyday. 1.8 million died throughout the whole year, for many different causes. But among them, diarrhea was the second greatest cause of infant mortality on the planet. The number of children who died because of diarrhea in 2004 is equal to about six times the number of deaths caused by wars during the 1990s. On the other hand, children around the world missed 443 million school days due to sickness from bad drinking water, or because they had to go retrieve water for their families. One such child, Yeni Bazan is a ten year old from El Alto, Bolivia. His testimony is recorded in the 2006 report on human development of the United Nations Development Program: Of course I would like to go to school. I want to learn to read and to write, but I can’t. My mom needs me to go find water.

The average person needs a minimum of 20 liters of water a day to drink and wash. 1.1 billion only have 5 liters, and the water is contaminated. Individual Europeans use about 200 to 300 liters of water a day: Americans, 575 liters. In England, the average citizen uses up 50 liters of water a day just from flushing the toilet.

Four out of every ten inhabitants of the earth lack appropriate sanitation. The above-mentioned report also discovered that millions of people must go to the bathroom on the side of the road, in plastic bags (called flying toilets), or in waterways.This constitutes a serious health risk, contaminating drinking water. Apart from its lethal effect on children, the lack of clean water and sanitation severely endanger the general health of a population. About half of the inhabitants of the developing countries suffer from health issues related to water.

Clean water and sanitation decisively reduced mortality rates in the United States and England. It is estimated that the drop in the mortality rate in the US during the first three decades of the 20th century, as well as the increase in life expectancy by 15 years in England between 1880 and 1920, were caused by a greater access to clean water, and the expansion of sanitation systems.

How can we justify the condemnation of a large portion of the human race to these kind of mortal risks in the 21st century? The issue has much more to do with apathy than water scarcity. With only 10 billion dollars we could cut the deficit in clean water and sanitation around the world in half by 2015. 10 billion dollars is less than 5 days of military expenditure, and less than half of what developed countries spend per year on mineral water.

In Latin America this problem should not exist. Blessed with natural resources, the continent has 33 percent of the world reserves of good drinking water. Yet, 50 million people lack clean water, and 119 million lack appropriate sanitation. The middle and upper classes in Latin America are not even aware that the lack of water exists as a problem for the rest of the continent. Most can hardly imagine not having a toilet, or a faucet in the house. The poor in Latin America must buy water in bottles and bring it back to their home, paying a great deal more than those who can simply turn on the tap. Twenty percent of the poorest population of El Salvador, Jamaica and Nicaragua spends 10 percent of their incomes on water.

On the other hand, in 2004, 55 percent of citizens in Nicaragua lacked sanitation; 54 percent in Bolivia; 38 percent in El Salvador; 37 percent in Peru; 27 percent in Panama; 22 percent in the Dominican Republic; 21 percent in Mexico; and 20 percent in Paraguay. In Peru, latrines could reduce infant mortality because of diarrhea by 50 percent, and toilets outfitted with cisterns could reduce it by 70 percent. Infant mortality is extremely high among the poorest 20 percent of Peru: 93 deaths out of every 1000 children, compared to 3 deaths for every 1,000 in Sweden. In the favelas of Salvador, Brazil, infant diarrhea doubles in homes without toilets.

The UNDP has underlined that the world water crisis is born from inequality, poverty, and power and not from physical availability. The University of the UN did a study on the world distribution of capital. The results indicated that 1 percent of the world’s population is in control of over 40 percent of world capital, while 50 percent of the world’s population controls only 1 percent. These are obscene disparities. 65 million people have forty times more capital than 3.25 billion people.

The lack of clean water and sanitation is an affront to humanity and is inadmissible on a continent like Latin America with so much potential. It violates the right to a dignified life of millions of human beings and is ethically intolerable. We must put these issues at the forefront of our collective agenda, and take action.

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