Poor sanitation a huge killer of children, UNICEF says on World Water Day

22 March 2004 – More than 5,000 children die every day from diarrhoeal diseases, often in areas hit by man-made or natural disasters, the head of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says in a message to mark World Water Day, whose theme this year is water and disasters.

Carol Bellamy, UNICEF's Executive Director, says children suffering from poor diets and the effects of other diseases are the first to get sick when a major disaster strikes a community and its clean-water and sanitation systems.

UNICEF statistics indicate that 2 million children die of diarrhoeal diseases each year, and that water-borne diseases - such as diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid - are one of the prime causes of mortality of children under five. Still, this represents a substantial decline from the 1980s, when an average of almost 3 million children died from diarrhoea annually.

Ms. Bellamy says governments must invest more in clean water and sanitation systems to ensure they do not break down following a disaster. "The best way to head off the effect of an emergency is to empower local communities to care for their water supplies and for governments to make investments that will ensure water and sanitation security even during the toughest times," she says.

UNICEF has set up several water security projects recently in countries affected by man-made or natural disasters from earthquakes to drought to civil war. Last December, following the earthquake in Bam, Iran, the agency distributed some 600,000 water purification tablets and provided washing facilities as part of its commitment to provide safe water and adequate sanitation within three days of an emergency.

Ms. Bellamy's message is echoed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who says the world needs to do much more to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving, by 2015, the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water.

Mr. Annan has used the occasion of the Day to announce the formation of an Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, a panel of eminent persons and technical experts that will try to galvanize global action on these issues. It is to be chaired by Ryutaro Hashimoto, a former Prime Minister of Japan.

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