Amref Health Africa Calls for Increased Focus and Investment on Providing Safe Water

On Tuesday, March 22, Amref Health Africa will join the global community in celebrating the World Water Day, notably the first following adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in November 2015. The launch of the SDGs has renewed hope for millions of African women and children who spend 40 billion hours annually walking for water. Water is central to everything including agriculture, food security and nutrition, sanitation, hygiene and overall health, industry, human settlement and development in general means.

This year’s theme “Water and Jobs” rhymes well with the cardinal role water plays in providing livelihood to millions of people across Africa. Unfortunately, lack of sustainable access to clean water has an enormous negative impact on development particularly for women and girls who are the main water carriers in more than 70% of households without water. As a result, they miss out on vital activities that can provide a path out of poverty, such as getting an education or earning an income. In rural Africa, women spend 26% of their time collecting water, as they walk at least five miles to the nearest water source. In the dry season when water becomes scarcer, this time doubles. Walking to remote water sources, further exposes women to the risk of injury, sexual harassment and animal attacks. Moreover, women are subject to adverse health effects from constantly carrying water containers weighing up to 20kg on their heads, hips, or backs. Lack of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) is one of the greatest obstacles to poverty alleviation and economic growth. The World Bank Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP) estimates that the lack of WASH can cause a 2 to 7% downward pull on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually, whereas providing WASH has an equally positive impact.
Water plays a key role in promoting healthcare at health facilities. However, 42% of health facilities in Africa do not have access to safe water while every minute a newborn baby dies from infection caused by a lack of safe water and an unclean environment. Boosting water and sanitation investments in hospitals and clinics in low income countries is essential to reduce maternal and newborn deaths. Many women in developing countries give birth at home, often without access to clean water and toilets, exposing themselves and their babies to infections. Clean water is essential to prevent sepsis or cord infections, and limit transmission of diseases.

Notably, 15% of all maternal deaths are caused by infections in the 6 weeks after childbirth mainly due to unhygienic conditions during home deliveries and in institutions. Another of the 5 major causes of maternal death and disability, sepsis, is caused when clean water and adequate sanitation are not available to a woman during labor and childbirth. Sanitation-related illnesses debilitate and kill an estimated one million Africans every year, as well as inhibit economic growth and limit access to education and life opportunities. People suffering from illnesses related to poor sanitation occupy 50% of the hospital beds in sub-Saharan Africa and account for 12% of the health budget. An estimated 160 million people are infected with schistosomiasis or bilharzias, a parasitic disease from flatworms that causes tens of thousands of deaths annually.

About 500 million people are at risk of trachoma, which threatens 146 million with blindness and six million with visual impairment. Sustained access to adequate WASH is the best conceivable preventive health care, which is 10 times cheaper than curative care. Lack of clean water, sanitation and hygiene costs sub-Saharan African countries more in lost GDP than the entire continent gets in development aid. Depending on the country and region, economic benefits have been estimated to range from US$3 to US$34 for each dollar invested in clean water and sanitation. In sub-Saharan Africa, treating largely preventable diarrhea consumes an estimated 12 per cent of health budgets.

During the last 60 years, Amref Health Africa has been responding to this need by working with local experts and communities to co-create sustainable solutions for increased access to safe water. In over 10 countries, we are increasing community usage of technologically appropriate improved water supply services through provision of appropriate water supply infrastructure in underserved rural, peri-urban and urban communities, targeting mainly schools and health facilities. Water quality is core in our work. We are therefore supporting water source protection at village, school and health facility levels to prevent contamination. Besides, we are building the capacity of local government officials and community health volunteers to monitor water quality at source and point of use using water quality testing methods including field test kits, government water quality testing laboratories and Amref Health Africa laboratories. In order to realize optimal outcomes, Amref Health Africa is intensifying programme integration to ensure WASH is integrated with HIV, malaria, diagnostics, maternal health and child health. Further, we lobby for increased investment in safe water, improved hygiene and sanitation through policy, research and targeted campaigns.

As we mark this important day, Amref Health Africa calls on development partners, governments, civil society, private sector and other players in the WASH space to systematically increase investments geared towards provision of safe water in Africa. This should be focused on women and children living in marginalized rural and urban informal settlements.

This is the surest way of delivering lasting health change in Africa.

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