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Think of all the things you use water for in a day. More than likely, you use it to wash your hands, to brush your teeth, to flush the toilet, to take a shower, to drink. Now imagine you couldn’t do all those things because you don’t have access to clean water. There’s no toilet in your village and your friends and family keep getting sick because many people still defecate in open fields in their villages and they never wash their hands. You’re powerless to do anything about it because nobody will listen to what you say. Nothing changes.
It doesn't sound like a lot of fun, right?
Asia has a water problem that is most apparent when we look at what the water we have is being used for – or not used for, as the case may be. Nearly 1.7 billion people still have no access to proper sanitation while 400 million people can’t get clean water. This lack of safe water and adequate sanitation services, along with poor hygiene practices, is making thousands of Asia’s children sick and holding them back from reaching their potential. Worse still, these same children are all too often denied their right to have a voice and be part of the solution to Asia’s water woes
Nearly 90 per cent of deaths due to diarrhoea can be attributed to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. In 2010, more than 300,000 children in Asia died due to diarrhoea. These are the kind of deaths we can prevent if we focus on children being part of the drive for change in their communities.
Today, on World Water Day, we at Plan International, a global child rights organisation, are calling on the region’s governments to rethink how they’re approaching these issues and bring children into discussions and initiatives that have a direct impact on their lives. There’s no better place to do this than in Asia’s schools. Education across the region is hampered by a lack of access to clean water and decent sanitation facilities in schools.
While progress towards the Millennium Develop Goals (MDGs) of water and sanitation has been systematically monitored at the country and global levels, the situation in schools has been overlooked. A UNICEF report cited that about 70 per cent of primary schools have water and 67 per cent have toilets, but these data do not reflect the condition of the facilities. In many schools, even when there are toilets these are rarely designed in a child-friendly manner, are poorly maintained or fail to provide convenience, security and privacy.
Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in schools has long been an orphan – the least favourite child of the WASH sector as well as the education sector. School WASH requires true cooperation among various stakeholders, including the ministries mandated with these two sectors, local governments, school management, parents and, of course, children.
When girls and boys are empowered and made part of the solution, rather than simply being labelled as victims, we start to see major changes. This is the power of child participation in development and it’s something that is crucial at this stage as we start looking beyond the MDGs for our next round of targets.
There are many ways we can bring children into the picture when it comes to water and sanitation. In Bangladesh, a country where 75 million people don’t have a toilet, child ministries in schools get together to flesh out what they need in terms of services and facilities and work with their teachers to make their visions reality. The students also learn how to use the facilities and maintain them.
When the children feel there is value in, say, having a clean toilet and looking after it or washing their hands before they eat, they are then likely to take this knowledge and pass it onto their friends, their families, their neighbours. This peer-to-peer sharing of ideas helps raise awareness of issues that might otherwise not be discussed or even thought about.
In Nepal, where less than half of the population has a toilet at home, open defecation contaminates water sources and makes people sick. About 14 per cent of under-5 deaths in Nepal are because of diarrhoea. To help tackle this, children have spearheaded the School-Led Total Sanitation movement where, with appropriate facilitation by supportive adults, they have proved to be capable of playing leadership roles.
Examples of children’s capabilities are also abound in India as well as other countries. Pictures, posters, radio shows and drama performances are all effective, engaging ways of broaching issues that when tackled can make a big difference in a community. Children in Sri Lanka played a significant role at a high level policy forum at the 4th South Asian Conference on Sanitation.
The theme for World Water Day this year is cooperation. This year is also the International Year of Water Cooperation. If we’re going to work together to overcome the challenges of a region that has a water problem, it’s going to take the participation of everyone – children included.
Hilda Winartasaputra is Plan International's water, sanitation and hygiene specialist in Asia.