The Morality of Water

waterandsanitationPoverty, inequality and unequal power relationships are the main cause of the current global water and sanitation crisis, according to a paper titled “The human right to water and sanitation: benefits and limitations” which is contained in a UN report: The Right to Water – Current Situation and Future Challenges.

Despite the gravity of the situation, water and sanitation rarely make the headlines in the news media. The financial and human cost of the crisis is humongous.

“The global damage caused by diseases and productivity losses related to unclean water and poor sanitation is estimated at a staggering US 170 billion dollars per year with developing countries’ economies bearing the brunt of this burden. Sub-Saharan Africa alone loses 5 % of GDP or US 28,4 billion per year, a figure that exceeded total aid flow and debt relief into the region in 2003,” states the report.

Such a hemorrhage is clearly unacceptable, and for Sub-Saharan Africa it is clear that lack of access to water and sanitation is not only about health and development; it is an economic imperative.

Lack of political will is cited as a key stumbling block to ensuring wider access to water and sanitation services, particularly among the urban and rural poor. The poor and marginalized bear the brunt and are left alone in the cold to cater for their water and sanitation needs.

In many parts of the world, water and sanitation are treated separately despite the fact that they are two sides of the same coin.

“Sanitation is still considered a dirty issue or even taboo in many world regions. The resulting lack of publicity severely hinders the dissemination of knowledge about good and bad sanitary practices and prevents action at the local, national and international level to adequate sanitation,” adds the report.

Treating water and sanitation as separate from each other is counterproductive because in practice the two cannot be separated.

For instance, the unsafe disposal of human excreta can impact negatively on water sources, and damage people’s health. Thus, it is critical to ensure that the provision of safe water for personal and domestic needs entails basic sanitary measures that ensure the effective separation of drinking water supplies from human excreta and waste water.

Having said this, there are strong causal links between lack of access to basic sanitation and ill-health, poverty and loss of human dignity.

Almost 2,6 billion people in the world lack access to a decent toilet or latrine, a matter of fact, which impinges negatively on their human rights.

Yet the picture is not all gloom. The growing recognition of water and sanitation as a human right is a welcome development. Many countries have revised their laws and constitutions to include the right to water and sanitation.

Including the right to water and sanitation in legal frameworks can potentially empower citizens to hold their elected officials and governments accountable to the provision of water and sanitation services.

In addition, it can generate the political will which is often a missing link in ensuring universal access to water and sanitation. It can also be used as a tool to campaign for the implementation of low-cost technical solutions to the water and sanitation problem.

“Taking deliberate steps to ensure that all people have access to basic water and sanitation services is not only a moral imperative, but also common sense from an economic perspective, and, above all – a human rights obligation that every state and the international community is legally bound to comply with,” states the paper.

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