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Waste not, want not and WASH - key words for World Water Day

World Water Day is recognised worldwide on March 22 every year and is a timely opportunity to revisit the importance of access to clean water that many of us take for granted.

Today, there are over 663 million people living without a safe and accessible water supply close to home.

Clean water reduces the rate of diarrhoeal infection.

--Photo the National Centre for Environmental Health and Water Supply


Too many spend countless hours queuing or trekking to distant sources or are left to cope with the debilitating health impacts of using contaminated water.

This year's theme: Why waste water? is in support of Sustainable Development Goal 6.3 on improving water quality and reducing, treating and reusing wastewater.

Globally, the vast majority of all wastewater from our homes, cities, industry and agriculture flows back to the environment without being treated or reused – polluting drinking and bathing and irrigation and losing valuable nutrients and other recoverable materials.

Reducing and safely treating and reusing wastewater in the proper way, for example in agriculture and aquaculture, protects worker, farmers and consumers promotes food security, health and wellbeing.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), safely managed sanitation and safe wastewater treatment and reuse are fundamental to protect public health.

WHO is leading efforts to monitor the global burden of sanitation related disease and access to safely managed sanitation and safely treated wastewater under the Sustainable Development agenda.

The organisation also monitors factors that enable or hinder progress towards these targets.

WHO also supports implementation by promoting risk assessment and management in normative guidelines and tools and collaborates with partners in other health initiatives such as; neglected tropical diseases, nutrition, infection prevention and control and antimicrobial resistance to maximise health benefits of sanitation interventions.

It estimated that about 1.8 billion people globally using a source of drinking water that is faecally contaminated.

A significant amount of disease could be prevented through access to safe water supply, adequate sanitation services and better hygiene practices.

Diarrhoeal disease alone amounts to an estimated 3.6 percent of the total global burden of disease and is responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million people every year (WHO 2012).

It is estimated that 58 percent of that burden, or 842, 000 deaths per year, is attributable to unsafe water supply, sanitation and hygiene and includes 361,000 deaths of children under age five, mostly in low-income countries (WHO 2014).

WHO quantifies the burden of diseases associated with poor “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene” or WASH, works with scientists to obtain the most rigorous and relevant evidence on WASH and health.

Such provides a comprehensive health-risk based framework and provides technical support on WASH in a number of areas including neglected tropical diseases, nutrition, maternal, newborn and child health, and emergencies.

In Laos, relevant authorities are working with development partners from the WHO to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and non-profits like Abundant Water to improve access to clean and safe water in urban and rural areas alike.

Director of the National Centre for Environmental Health and Water Supply, Dr Soutsakhone Chanthaphone, told Vientiane Times that people who use borewells or artesian wells in rural areas regularly face a water shortfall in summer.

Some of them decide to utilise proximate water sources such as streams or rivers.

But Dr Soutsakhone said water from these sources must always be treated before use.

If water from this source is not treated effectively, individuals could be at risk of skin disease infection and d iarrhoea infection.

A series of studies, led by WHO in collaboration with 14 leading research institutions, estimates the burden of disease caused by unsafe water, sanitation, and hygiene in 145 low- and middle-income countries including Laos.

The study results are summarised in a new report “Preventing diarrhoea through better water, sanitation and hygiene: exposures and impacts in low- and middle-income countries”.

Worldwide, inadequate drinking water and sanitation is estimated to cause 502, 000 and 280, 000 diarrhoea deaths, respectively.

The most likely estimate of disease burden from inadequate hand hygiene amounts to 297, 000 deaths.

In total, 842, 000 diarrhoea deaths are estimated to be caused by this cluster of risk factors, which accounts for 1.5 percent of the total disease burden and 58 percent of diarrhoeal diseases.

Among children under five years old, 361, 000 deaths could be prevented, representing 5.5 percent of deaths in that age group.

Universal access to clean water and sanitation is one of 17 Global Goals that make up the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

According to the UNDP in Laos, projections from 2012 indicated that Laos has achieved the MDG target on safe water and sanitation.

In 2015, 76 percent of the population of Laos was estimated to have access to improved sources of drinking water.

The estimate of coverage by improved sanitation was 71 percent, but the high prevalence of open defecation is still a concern (38 per cent in 2011/12, and an estimated 23 percent in 2015).

The rural-urban gap narrowed regarding the access to safe water but disparities remain significant.

At national level, the gap is now estimated as 17 percentage points in 2015.

Inequities are far greater in sanitation than in water coverage.

This may be because having improved sanitation facilities is not a priority amongst the poor, whereas clean water is universally desired. Sanitation coverage in rural areas is an estimated 38 percentage points behind that in urban areas in 2015.

In 79 percent of households without water on the premises, females collect the water.

This trend is more pronounced among poor rural families, families whose heads have little or no education and ethnic groups living in remote mountainous areas.

The health and nutrition outcomes of unsafe water and inadequate sanitation are severe.

Children living in households with safe water and sanitation are less prone to diarrhoea, stunting and underweight.

Tragically, those living in rural villages where community members defecate in the open and/or use unimproved latrines are shorter than healthy children living in rural villages where everybody uses improved sanitation.

This difference in height is irreversible and reflects on both physical and cognitive development and future productive potential so important for improved quality of life.

Water safety and water quality also need increased attention in towns and cities.

In Laos, surface water is the major water source for urban supply as most towns are located along rivers.

The country still has acceptable water quality in its rivers, but this is under increasing threat from pollution.

The main causes are waste and sewerage from the growing population and urbanisation, and run-offs from agricultural, industrial and mineral exploitatio n activities.

According to the UNDP Urban sanitation remains generally poor, with urban areas including the rapidly expanding capital suffering from the inadequate drainage and sewerage systems, and the poor design of existing sewerage disposal or septic tanks.


By Xaysana Leukai
(Latest Update March 25, 2017)

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