Water: a most precious commodity and a basic right

Thousands die every day from the consequences of drinking from tainted sources. We can make a differ

It’s easy to take water for granted. While the current drought in parts of the UK means that some of us are facing temporary restrictions such as hosepipe bans, we all know that when we turn on the tap there will be enough safe, clean water for our daily needs, from drinking to washing and cooking.

In parts of Africa and Asia, the value of water is felt much more deeply.  “Water is everything. Once you have water you have hope for tomorrow,” explains Alice Nirere from Ntarama village, Rwanda, where WaterAid installed a new rainwater harvesting system last year. “Things have changed a lot now we have water near to us; we don’t have to toil anymore.”

At WaterAid, our vision is of a world where everyone has access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. Over the past seven years, the New Statesman and its subscribers have been helping us step closer to this goal, donating over £25,000 to our work to improve access to these vital services in communities across Africa and Asia. That’s over 1,600 lives changed; from children who are healthy and no longer missing school to women and girls who are able to spend time with their families, get an education or earn a living.

The transformation brought by safe water and toilets is clear to see. In the villages of Ambolotarakely and Manjaka in rural Madagascar, WaterAid is working in partnership with communities to install water points, build latrines and school toilets and set up handwashing facilities. As a result, the villages have seen a huge reduction in diseases related to water and sanitation, and school attendance has shot up. As well as providing clean, safe water to drink, the run-off water from the village water points is used to grow vegetables to sell – an important source of income in an area ranked among the poorest in Madagascar.

Sadly, this example is far from the reality for millions of people in the world’s poorest communities. In fact, a staggering 783 million people are currently living without this most basic necessity. For these communities, finding water is a daily struggle, with women and children spending hours each day walking to collect water from unsafe sources such as streams, ponds and unprotected wells. Along with poor sanitation, this dirty water causes diseases that kill 4,000 children every day.

This can be prevented. Having clean water and toilets available close to home not only saves lives but transforms them too.  It helps communities take the first, essential steps out of poverty. Free from the burdens of illness and hours spent fetching water, time can be spent in more productive ways such as working, taking care of children or going to school. The impact is so huge that for every £1 spent on water and sanitation, £8 is returned in increased productivity (UNDP Human Development Report, 2006).

On a global scale, progress is being made, and earlier this year the UN reported that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to halve the proportion of people worldwide living without safe water had been met. While this is undoubtedly a significant achievement, a renewed effort to reach the nearly 800 million still without access to clean water, and the 2.5 billion who have nowhere safe to go to the toilet, remains critical. With current slow rates of progress making the target for providing sanitation one of the most off track MDGs, world leaders need to take action now to tackle this crisis.

The numbers may sound daunting, but a world where everyone has access to safe water to drink is achievable, and could be only a generation away. Universal access to both clean water and adequate sanitation could save the lives of 2.5 million people who die every year from diseases caused by dirty water and the lack of toilets. With the help from supporters such as the New Statesman, we will keep working to make this a reality.

Barbara Frost is Chief Executive of Water Aid

Find out more about WaterAid’s work at www.wateraid.org

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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.