Countries’ Water and Sanitation Plans Falter Amid Global Cholera Surge 

Amid a worldwide surge in cholera outbreaks – a sign of poor access to clean water and sanitation – a key report released on Wednesday shows that only a quarter of countries are on track to achieve their national sanitation targets.

Meanwhile, less than half – a mere 45% – are on track to achieve drinking water coverage targets, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Water’s Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) 2022 report involving data from 121 countries.

Three-quarters of countries also reported insufficient funds to implement their WASH plans and strategies, and few had enough staff to implement plans.

“Almost two million people are dying every year because of poorly managed water sanitation and hygiene,” said Bruce Gordon, head of the WHO’s water, sanitation, hygiene and health unit.

“The plea from WHO is that countries need to recommit to the targets they’ve already made in order to save these lives,” said Gordon.

Bruce Gordon, head of the WHO’s water, sanitation, hygiene and health unit.

Ignoring climate

But what is perhaps the most daunting is how few countries – under half – address the risk of climate change in any of their water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) plans.

Only 20% of countries reported implementing climate change preparedness approaches for local-level risk assessment and management of WASH at a significant scale.

This is despite billions of people living in areas vulnerable to drought, wildfires, floods, coastal storms and rising sea levels.

“Climate resilience and adaptation to climate change are huge issues that are impacting all of us. And yet when we look at the policy response, whether it’s climate resilient technologies – which are simple things to avoid floods or to mitigate droughts, simple risk management and simple technologies, these are not being put in place,” said Gordon.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said: “We are facing an urgent crisis: poor access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene claim millions of lives each year, while the increasing frequency and intensity of climate-related extreme weather events continue to hamper the delivery of safe WASH services.”

Tedros called on governments and development partners to “strengthen WASH systems and dramatically increase investment to extend access to safely managed drinking water and sanitation services to all by 2030, beginning with the most vulnerable”.

Cholera outbreaks

Meanwhile, the WHO reports that 29 countries have reported cholera cases this year, including Haiti, Malawi and Syria which are facing large outbreaks. Cholera is a waterborne disease spread by eating food or drinking water that is contaminated with bacteria.

“In comparison, in the previous five years, fewer than 20 countries on average reported outbreaks. The global trend is moving towards more numerous, more widespread and more severe outbreaks, due to floods, droughts, conflict, population movements and other factors that limit access to clean water and raise the risk of cholera outbreaks,” it noted.

Lebanon, which has been free of cholera for almost 30 years, reported an outbreak in October while Syria is experiencing its first outbreak since 2009.

Meanwhile, Haiti is battling a large outbreak with over 13,000 cases, its first in three years. Over 260 people have died of the disease, and the country received 1.17 million doses of cholera vaccine on Tuesday.

The vaccine (Evichol) was provided by the International Coordinating Group on Vaccine Provision (IGC), which manages the global cholera vaccine stockpile, following a request by Haiti’s Ministry of Public Health and Population. The WHO has recommended that people only get one dose of the two-dose vaccine because of a global shortage.

Off-track for development goals

“The world is seriously off-track to achieve Social Development Goal 6 on water and sanitation for all, by 2030. This leaves billions of people dangerously exposed to infectious diseases, especially in the aftermath of disasters, including climate change-related events,” said Gilbert Houngbo, chair of UN-Water, and Director General of the International Labour Organization. 

“The new data from GLAAS will inform the voluntary commitments the international community will make at the UN 2023 Water Conference in March, helping us target the most vulnerable communities and solve the global water and sanitation crisis.”  

The UN 2023 Water Conference – formally known as the 2023 Conference for the Midterm Comprehensive Review of Implementation of the UN Decade for Action on Water and Sanitation (2018-2028) – will take place at UN Headquarters in New York, 22-24 March 2023.

Image Credits: Unsplash.

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