Kids Pay Dearly for Lack of Clean Water
By Diego Cevallos*
caused by contaminated drinking water, kills more children in Latin
America and the Caribbean than tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS, warns the
United Nations. Millions of children -- children of the indigenous
and black communities in particular -- are at risk.
MEXICO CITY - In Latin America and the Caribbean,
one-third of childhood deaths are the result of diarrhea. The problem
could be resolved with clean water and appropriate sanitation systems,
but millions of people, especially the indigenous and Afro-descendant
populations, lack access to either.
Statistics for the region show that coverage of water and sanitation
services is among the best in the world. But the figures can be
Although 91 percent of the region's population does have access
to potable water, there are still 50 million people who don't, and
34 million live in rural areas. As for sanitation, coverage reaches
77 percent, but 103 million people lack access to that service.
Those shortfalls are behind the majority of diarrhea-based illnesses,
which today are the second leading cause of infant mortality in
Latin America and the Caribbean, after respiratory infections.
Worldwide, 1.8 million children die each year from diarrhea, which
proves more deadly than tuberculosis, malaria or HIV/AIDS.
"For the children who don't have water and sanitation, the future
is poverty and illness, and will probably follow them the rest of
their lives," Liliana Carvajal, one of the authors of the 2006 Human
Development Report, presented Nov. 9 by the United Nations Development
Program (UNDP), told Tierramérica.
The report states that "clean water and sanitation are among the
most powerful preventative measures for child mortality." And that
investment in this area "is to killer diseases like diarrhea what
immunization is to measles -- a lifesaver."
Halving the proportion of people without access to potable water
and basic sanitation is one of the eight Millennium Development
Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations, with the deadline of 2015.
Latin America and the Caribbean are well on their way to meeting
that goal. But it will only be in terms of averages, because millions
of people will still lack access to those services.
"We can't be shouting victory, because there are specific cases
that are very complicated," said Carvajal.
"It is no longer ethically or politically acceptable to use averages
as indicators of the level of compliance with the MDGs, because
they hide very difficult realities," says Nils Katsberg, Latin America
and Caribbean director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The fact is that the people who live in rural areas and are indigenous
or of African descent -- in other words, some 200 million of the
approximately 523 million people in the region -- face serious obstacles
in achieving the levels of development set by the MDGs, Katsberg
"There is still much to be done, especially with the children,"
One-third of Latin America's rural residents do not have safe sources
of drinking water, and more than half do not have adequate sanitation
facilities, according to UNDP studies.
In Bolivia, 95 percent of the urban population utilize potable water
sources, but in the countryside the proportion is just 68 percent.
As for sanitation services, access is 58 percent for the urban dwellers
and 23 percent for rural residents, according to the agency's figures.
Only 54 percent of Bolivian children under age five who suffer diarrhea
receive oral rehydration treatment. In neighboring Brazil, where
there is greater coverage of both sanitation services (75 percent)
and potable water services (90 percent), such treatment reaches
just 28 percent of young children with diarrhea.
In Guatemala, where 95 percent of the population has access to sources
of clean or treated water, just 22 percent of children with diarrhea
receive rehydration treatment.
The reverse is true in Haiti. There, only 54 percent of the population
has access to potable water and just 30 percent have sanitation
services, but 41 percent of children under five with diarrhea receive
"A child born without access to water and sanitation is going to
have constant cases of diarrhea, which will affect the immune system.
The child will have anemia, which will affect schooling, and the
child will learn less," said development expert Carvajal.
"It is a cycle of poverty that will follow the child for the rest
of her life," she added.
The Human Development Report, which the UNDP has published annually
since 1990, emphasizes that investment in water and sanitation would
save millions of lives, but also stresses that improved services
would be of great economic benefit.
Universal access to potable water and sanitation services would
reduce the financial burden of the health systems in developing
countries by an estimated 1.6 billion dollars annually.
In countries like Nicaragua, clean water would cut diarrhea cases
by more than 20 percent; in Peru 15 percent; and in Guatemala nearly
40 percent, according to UNDP.
Latin America and the Caribbean "must make a much greater effort
in everything related to water and sanitation in the rural sectors,
and put a stop to discrimination against indigenous and Afro-descendant
communities in access to those services," said UNICEF's Katsberg.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.