UNICEF: Safe water a matter of life or death for world's children
By Benedict Mayaki, SJ, and Thaddeus Jones
Tuesday, March 22nd marks World Water Day, the annual UN day focusing on the importance of water and raising awareness on the plight of two billion people living without access to safe water. The World Day is focusing increasingly on the global water crisis affecting most people due to climate change, pollution and the need for better management of this essential life-giving and sustaining resource.
This year's theme focuses on "Groundwater - making the invisible visible," since almost all freshwater comes from groundwater used for drinking, sanitation, farming, industry, and ecosystems. Increasing over-use and pollution signal alarming threats that must be addressed.
World leaders, policy makers, scientists and civil society groups are meeting and discussing these issues in the West African capital of Dakar, Senegal, where the annual World Water Forum is taking place, the world's large annual event focusing on water.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is participating in the global water forum with its own appeal for governments and societies to assure children have access to clean, potable drinking water, as well as sanitary facilities, all critical for survival. The organizaton has also pointed out the challenges caused by armed conflicts where even water points become targets for warring parties.
Vatican News' Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ, is in Dakar attending the World Water Forum. He spoke to UNICEF's Regional Director for West-Central Africa, Marie Pierre Poirier, who stresses how "water is life for children."
What is the importance of a water forum in West Africa and at the global level?
It's the first time that this global forum takes place in a country of the south, and in west and central Africa, a francophone country. It's a great symbolic moment. The forum wants to put the focus on a topic which is very important for the rights of children: safe water and sanitation. Water is necessary for life. If children cannot drink safe portable water, they become ill with diarrhea or cholera. Water is a necessary ingredient for development. You know that safe water in school and sanitary facilities in school plays a very important role to increase children’s access and to retain children in school, particularly girls who feel very uncomfortable when they don't have their own sanitary locations in school. And water is also very important for protection.
With climate change, water scarcity is becoming a real problem everywhere on earth, particularly in our region. Five of the countries of this region have been assessed as the most highly vulnerable for water scarcity. And when there is no water, there's no life, there’s no development, but there's also no security or peace because it's a factor of conflict, conflict between communities. With the deteriorating situation in Sahel we're seeing water points increasingly become targets.
This forum is to bring all of this back on the radar and ask government to do the necessary investments to provide safe water and sanitation to all the population. We are recommending that this is done in coordination and collaboration with young people. They have a lot to contribute with new ideas. They can do a lot and we here at UNICEF can support that process, both with government to put in place to policies and programs and young people to play their proper role to put these solutions in action.
You talk about water and conflict. There is a war going on in Ukraine as everyone knows. How is UNICEF responding to the needs there, because water is so important in those crisis situations?
We are responding in Ukraine, we are responding in Afghanistan, we are responding in the Sahel. UNICEF is a global organization. You are right that we are seeing increasingly that water points and water infrastructures are becoming targets of conflict. In Ukraine and we saw that in Burkina Faso as recently as last week. So, this is really very problematic because this is disturbing the life of citizens, children and their communities.
We are trying to work upstream with preparedness and building resilience of communities and getting people to anticipate movements. When they are moved and become internally displaced, one of the first actions of UNICEF is to recreate water points. We learn that the immediate solutions like water tracking are important, but very quickly it's more important to actually provide more durable solutions.
We are very active in the Sahel on this around water points. We are also capitalizing in our region on the opportunities and the assets like solar energy. UNICEF is very involved in solar power for water points which is environmentally friendly and sustainable...So, lots of fronts, lots of work to do, but also progress. This forum we hope will bring new commitment, new financing so we can take our work to the next level.
What is your message to the world for this year’s World Water Day?
Water is life for children. Water is development, keeping children in schools, particularly girls. Water is a factor of social cohesion to prevent conflict. Let’s make sure that all communities on the planet have access to safe potable water, sanitary facilities that are people friendly and easy to maintain, and that every community adopts hygiene practices to keep their children healthy and safe.