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RIO+20 The Future We Want

RIO+20 the future we want

Call for more focus on water and sanitation needs of the most vulnerable


Secretary General and General Assembly President

Source: UNEP, 2003

New York, 21 February – Neglected populations must be the central target of a future development agenda according to United Nations officials and civil society partners at a discussion held at UN Headquarters to address inequalities in water, sanitation and hygiene.

"Water, sanitation and hygiene are central to development efforts," said Ambassador Jarmo Viinanen of Finland.

Viinanen said his government, together with UNICEF, UN Women, WaterAid and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, have called on the international community to place equality, human rights and sustainability as the foundation of the post-2015 development priorities.

More than 19,000 children die every day, mostly from preventable causes and most related to the lack of access to safe drinking water. Catarina de Albuquerque, the Special Rapporteur, said a future agenda must aim at ending the discrimination faced by millions of people around the world, including vulnerable communities, children, persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups.

"We must do better for the children of the world," she said, pointing out that during country visits, she noticed inequalities in access to basic water and sanitation services, from Japan to Slovenia. "In the twenty-first century, with all the technical advances, it is unacceptable that men, women and children lack access to a glass of safe water."

During the discussion, panellists agreed that a more collective approach was needed to work towards water and sanitation for all. The challenges were clear. Women and girls were the main water gatherers and long wait times often translated into missed school days. Lack of access to safe facilities also put women and girls at risk of abuse and violence. Panellists highlighted a number of key areas to focus efforts, including the need for targets, data and indicators to ensure all members of society were identified and included in initiatives and programmes.

"The mother of all inequalities is gender discrimination," said Lakhsmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women. "In the MDG context, it is clear that the unfinished business is linked to how gender equality and empowerment was not integrated in all the goals."

Possible ways to ensure gender-sensitive targets and indicators included focusing on reducing the burden of women and girls in water-related tasks, ensuring participation of women in water management and governance, ensuring safe access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services and enhancing the roles of women and girls in environmental aspects, such as pollution and conservation.

Secretary General and General Assembly President

Provision of drinking water took place as part of the Iraqi Marshlands project. Source: UNEP, 2008

Maniza Zaman, Deputy Director of UNICEF's Programme Division, said in bolstering efforts to advance and sustain the Millennium Goals, efforts should strive to reach universal access to WASH services and investments should be made in those services as an investment in children, and especially girls. As an example of efforts needed, she said only 64 per cent of Nepal's 28,000 community schools featured toilets and of those only 9 per cent had separate toilets for girls, creating a barrier to their right to education.

"If we can achieve progress for the most deprived families, we can contribute towards having more equitable societies," Ms. Zaman said. "This will not only be beneficial to the lives of individuals but for overall cohesion in the world."

Jarna Petman, Deputy Director of the Helsinki-based Erik Castén Institute of International Law and Human Rights, referred to the thousands of water-related preventable child deaths. "When we say 'gross violation of human rights', we think of torture, not these children dying," she said.

Margaret Batty, Policy and Campaign Director at the United Kingdom-based WaterAid, a non-governmental agency that supports projects in 50 countries, agreed. "Water is life and sanitation is dignity. The silo approach to the MDGs doesn’t work. In the twenty-first century, the international community has the means to deliver in our lifetimes."