At the Rio Dialogues on Sustainable Development earlier this week, one of the panellists noted water is only superseded in importance for our survival by air.
At the Rio Dialogues on Sustainable Development earlier this week, one of the panellists noted that as a rule of thumb, you can survive for three minutes without air; three days without water; and three weeks without food. His point was this: water is only superseded in importance for our survival by air. And yet, globally, 1.2 billion people lack access to safe water and 2.6 billion people don’t have access to adequate sanitation. Included in these figures are disabled people who face further barriers to access water and sanitation on account of their disability.
Here at Rio+20, discussions on water permeate every area of dialogue; farming; green and sustainable energy; healthy and green cities and most of all poverty eradication- to which water is intrinsically linked. In today’s opening session it has been a central theme for both governments and major groups.
This week at Rio one of my key aims as Sightsavers’ representative is to ensure that discussions surrounding water access are inclusive of disabled people. Moreover, any framework to address the challenges surrounding water and sanitation is inclusive of and responds to the voices and input of disabled people.
When it comes to water and sanitation access, it is vital that all these services are made accessible to disabled people from the outset; this can be achieved by simple, low-cost adaptions. I have seen these simple adaptions first hand in a village called Tienfala, when I visited Sightsavers’ work in Mali- and they work.
In Tienfala, the whole community has supported accessible water and sanitation services for disabled people. They have ensured that the wells used by disabled community members have higher walls- so that blind community members can locate them easily using a white cane; they have made the path to the well flat and accessible to wheelchair users, it also has stones laid out on either side that crunch under-foot as you approach- signalling that you are nearing the well. The latrines for disabled community members are accessible too. This means that the access point is wide enough to fit a wheelchair and the latrines themselves are raised off the ground to make them easier to locate and use.
The drive to ensure water and sanitation services are accessible for all – like in Tienfala has a number of benefits. Not only does it put disabled people at the centre of planning and implementation of water and sanitation services for their community; it ensures that the end product works for them and supports them to be active and productive members of their community. If these simple adjustments are made at the construction stage, they are low cost and much cheaper than making the adaptions once construction is complete.
Sanitation that is accessible to disabled people will bring added benefits to the rest of the community; higher walls on wells protect children from falling in and raised latrines will be useful for anyone with mobility difficulties- such as older people or heavily pregnant women. Ensuring that all community members have access to water and sanitation will support the prevention of infectious disease ranging from diarrhoeal disease to potentially disabling diseases such as trachoma.
This week at Rio I have been and will continue to highlight this important issue. As with so many of the discussions here, panellists and other delegates all agree with and affirm their support for water and sanitation access for disabled people. However, none of them mentioned the issue unprompted, despite discussions on vulnerability, marginalisation and unequal access. This needs to change. Disabled people’s voices need to be heard on this vital issue as they advocate for and realise their human right to water.
We still have much to do to change the fact that 1.2 billion people struggle to survive without access to clean water and 2.6 billion people wake up every day without sanitation. As we increase awareness around these issues, we must ensure that efforts to change this situation take into account the individual needs of community members; women, children, older people, and disabled people all rely on water for survival and many of these groups face additional barriers to water access on account of their social status. We must ensure that their voices are heard and their specific needs are met as we drive forward this agenda within the context of sustainable development.
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