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Water for Schools: A Proposed Global Initiative

The failure to meet basic human needs for water supply and sanitation is perhaps the greatest single development failure of the 20th century. More than 1.1 billion people lack reliable access to safe and affordable drinking water. More than 2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation services.

This failure has direct and serious consequences for human health, leading to between 2 and 5 million deaths a year from preventable water-related diseases, and hundreds of millions of cases of illness and intestinal infections in school-aged children. Parasitic infections have been demonstrated to adversely affect cognitive abilities.

There is no "silver bullet" solution to this problem; no single technological, financial, or institutional answer. Yet there are effective things that can, and must, be done to move toward comprehensive solutions, and there are many diverse groups already make serious and sustained efforts.

One critical new entry point deserves far more attention: the provision of safe water supply, adequate sanitation, and comprehensive hygiene education in schools. In 2005, the Pacific Institute called for a Water for Schools Initiative, launched globally, but implemented locally, with the collaboration of national governments, the United Nations, private foundations, corporations, and the non-governmental community (see note). The objective is to ensure that all schools have safe, reliable drinking water, adequate sanitation, and hygiene education within ten years.

Initial steps toward such an Initiative were taken by some UN agencies in 2005 (see, for example UNICEF's call for a focus on schools), and some local efforts have been tried, but a larger and more sustained program is needed. The objective of such a program is straightforward: ensuring that all schools have safe water, adequate sanitation, and hygiene education.

Efforts must encompass both urban and rural schools. Improvements in access to water and sanitation facilities are necessary, but not sufficient: they must be accompanied by improved hygiene, if the transmission of disease is to be prevented.

And disease is not the only problem caused by poor sanitation in the school environment. Providing safe and separate sanitation facilities for girls, particularly adolescents, is a key factor in increasing school attendance by girls. Improved access to sanitation in schools in Bangladesh improved enrollment of girls by 10 to 15 percent (see Cairncross et al and see also WHO 1996). Improved health will improve attendance and school performance. The process of providing such facilities could also bring larger benefits to local communities.

The First Steps: What Is Needed?

As part of a global Water for Schools Initiative, a series of steps will have to be taken. Among these are:

  • A survey of all schools and an inventory of the scope of the challenge.
  • The high-level, long-term commitment on the part of policymakers, governments, and international organizations to the goal of 100 percent coverage in schools within a decade.
  • A serious and lasting commitment of funds and other resources to meet the objectives of the Initiative.

Note: Dr. Peter H. Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute, made this proposal at a March 17, 2005 meeting at the US Department of State attended by representatives of the US government, private foundations, corporations, and diverse international non-governmental organizations.

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