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

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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