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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 01:05 GMT
Poor sanitation 'a global catastrophe'
Water pump in Dhaka slum    Abir Abdullah
A little clean water goes a long way
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By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
Two British development charities say the lack of proper sanitation is killing almost 6,000 children every day.

Half the world's hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from water-borne diseases.

Collecting water amid effluent flow    Abir Abdullah
Slum life makes it hard to keep clean
The charities, WaterAid and Christian group Tearfund, describe the problem as "one of the world's most urgent health crises".

Yet they say the diseases are preventable, and solutions are both simple and cheap.

They have published a report, The Human Waste, to mark the United Nations' World Water Day on 22 March.

In it they say the crisis is being made more urgent by "an urban time bomb as millions of people flood into major cities of the world's poorest countries".

In the early 1970s the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, had about 250,000 people. Today, it has more than 10 million.

More important

A senior city official said last month: "The entire city is a cesspool, a septic tank... the urban poor have no sanitation facilities whatsoever. The situation is getting worse by the minute."

Across the world, the report says, 160,000 people migrate from the countryside to the cities every day.

It cites the man forever linked with the Indian independence struggle, Mahatma Gandhi, who once said: "Sanitation is more important than independence."

Women were ashamed to defecate during the day, but for men it was not a problem

Ethiopian woman
The head of the World Health Organisation, Dr Gro Harlem Bruntland, said: "Safe water supply and adequate sanitation to protect health are among the basic human rights.

Ensuring their availability would contribute immeasurably to health and productivity for development."

The report urges the UK Government to work to halve the number of people without adequate sanitation by 2015, and to ensure it is available to everyone by 2025.

It also wants ministers to set a timetable for increasing the UK's overseas aid to meet the long-standing UN target of 0.7% of gross national product (GNP).

Fear of attack

In 2000 the UK gave 0.32% of its GNP in aid. The charities say the scale of the problem is huge: in the last 10 years, diarrhoea has killed more children than the total number of people killed in armed conflict since the second world war.

In 1998, war in Africa killed 308,000 people, but diarrhoeal disease killed six times as many.

Rubbish-filled ditch    Abir Abdullah
Latrines empty into this Dhaka ditch
Ill-health is often the lot of those who do not die: children often suffer anaemia and stunted growth because of the parasites they carry.

Diseases which thrive in the absence of sanitation and clean water include dysentery, cholera, typhus fever, typhoid, schistosomiasis and trachoma.

Many people, especially women and children, suffer real distress from their embarrassment at having to relieve themselves in public.

One in Ethiopia said: "Women were ashamed to defecate during the day, but for men it was not a problem. They could go wherever they wanted.

"We had to wait until it was dark, and I was afraid of being attacked by wild animals or drunkards."

Pet food

An Indian woman said: "The area where we went to the toilet had snakes. If we saw a snake we wouldn't go. Once, a snake reared up behind me."

The report says a basic latrine can be built in India for 3-4, or 10-15 if the pit needs lining.

It says 11bn a year would by 2015 halve the number of people with no adequate sanitation.

That is the amount spent on pet food each year in Europe and the US.

The BBC's Adam Mynott reports from Delhi
"All around human waste is scattered"
See also:

14 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
Lagos confronts its waste problem
30 Nov 01 | Africa
Africa's shared water worries
22 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
World warned on water refugees
22 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
Call for world water clean-up
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