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Analysis: Water, sanitation and disease

By WILLIAM M. REILLY, UPI U.N. Correspondent

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- The U.N. Children's Fund says more than 1.2 billion people who were without access to safe water in 1990 now have it, meaning global coverage of safe water has increased from 78 to 83 percent in 2004.

"If the current trend continues, the world is on track to meet its Millennium Development Goal target (89 percent) by 2015, though more than 1 billion people were without access to improved drinking water sources in 2004," UNICEF said Thursday.

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But keeping pace with population growth will be a major challenge.

While water is as fundamental to human life as the air breathed, it all-too frequently is polluted in parts of the world, said the U.N. children's agency report, "Progress for Children: A Report Card on Water and Sanitation."

Why so many water sources are polluted can be blamed to a certain extent on the people themselves and their neighbors.

It said "the most likely pollutant is human feces that have not been disposed of and have spread because of a lack of basic sanitation and hygiene."

The report charts progress towards MDG seven, which includes the target of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. The MDGs are an eight-part plan developed by the 2000 United Nations General Assembly to address a wide range of humanitarian causes.

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Latin America, the Caribbean and South Asia will meet the drinking water targets almost 10 years early, the report said.

In South Asia, access to improved sanitation more than doubled between 1990 and 2004. In East Asia and the Pacific, the proportion of people with basic sanitation rose from 30 percent to more than 50 percent.

"The progress made to date in increasing the number of people with access to safe water has been impressive," UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said in a statement released at U.N. World Headquarters in New York. "However, unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation contribute to the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million children under five each year as a result of diarrhea."

"Despite commendable progress, an estimated 425 million children under the age of 18 still do not have access to an improved water supply and over 980 million do not have access to adequate sanitation," said Veneman.

Sanitary facilities are vital to preserving health, especially in children.

The report says improvements could reduce the child mortality rate by one-third; with better hygiene practices it could be reduced by two-thirds.

"Clean water and sanitation are vital prerequisites for improved nutrition, reductions in child and maternal mortality and the fight against disease," said Veneman.

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Meeting the MDGs would save millions of children's lives, UNICEF said.

"Young children are more vulnerable than any age group to the ill effects of unsafe water, insufficient quantities of water, poor sanitation and lack of hygiene," the report said. "Globally, 10.5 million children under the age of five die every year, with most of these deaths occurring in developing countries.

"Lack of safe water, sanitation and adequate hygiene contribute to the leading killers of children under five, including diarrhea diseases, pneumonia, neonatal disorders and under-nutrition," the study said, citing the Lancet and the U.N.'s World Health Organization.

UNICEF said more than 125 million children under five live in households without access to an improved drinking water source, and more than 280 million children under five live in households without access to improved sanitation facilities.

"The simple act of hand washing can have important implications for children's health and survival by reducing morbidity and mortality related to diarrhea, pneumonia and other infectious diseases," the report said.

The U.N. agency says not only is the children's health threatened, but also their human rights as individuals.

What the unsafe water and incomplete sanitation means for children, is that of the 120 million born in the developing world each year, half will live in households without access to improved sanitation facilities and one-fifth in households without access to improved drinking water sources, the report said.

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It means they are at great risk to their survival.

Unsafe drinking water, inadequate availability of water for hygiene and lack of access to sanitation combined account for about 88 percent of deaths from diarrhea -- more than 1.5 million of the 1.9 million children under five who die from diarrhea each year.

These figures amount to 18 percent of all under-five deaths, and mean more than 5,000 children are dying every day as a result of diarrhea diseases, the report said. Acute diarrhea, as in cholera, can kill in a day or less if not treated.

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