Safe Water, Proper Sanitation, Disaster Preparedness Issues of ‘Life and Death’ for Millions of People, Says Deputy Secretary-General at Thematic Session

7 March 2013

Safe Water, Proper Sanitation, Disaster Preparedness Issues of ‘Life and Death’ for Millions of People, Says Deputy Secretary-General at Thematic Session

7 March 2013
Deputy Secretary-General
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Safe Water, Proper Sanitation, Disaster Preparedness Issues of ‘Life and Death’

for Millions of People, Says Deputy Secretary-General at Thematic Session

Following are the closing remarks of UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson to the Special Thematic Session of the General Assembly on Water and Disasters, as prepared for delivery, in New York, 6 March:

On behalf of the Secretary-General, I want to thank you all for having taken active part in this very important Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters together with members of the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation.  I am honoured to be invited to deliver closing remarks at this critically important gathering.

The valuable experiences of today are highly relevant and can be tailored to different communities and different situations.  The high-level presence today of Japan and the Netherlands testifies to these two countries’ vulnerabilities and hard-won experiences and progress in disaster prevention and mitigation.  Last week I visited the disaster-struck area in and around the city of Ishinomaki in Japan.  It was a moving and unforgettable experience.

The results of this session can contribute to a broader discourse on water and disasters.  Your work can create synergy with efforts of the upcoming fourth Session of the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction, the post-2015 development agenda, the International Year of Water Cooperation, the World Water Forum and regional water summits and conferences like the Stockholm World Water Week.

I hope you will stay in close touch with each other and in different ways connect these important processes.

Your concern and active engagement can have tangible impact, globally and in the field.  I saw the importance of concrete solidarity in disaster situations when I was the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator in the early- to mid-1990s.  We dealt with many water disasters, including hurricanes in the Caribbean, cyclones in the Indian Ocean region and typhoons in the Pacific.

Preparation, prevention and early warning can make all the difference.  The experience of Bangladesh is of great relevance.  In 1991, a cyclone there drowned and killed almost 140,000 people.  I was there the year after.  It was still utterly devastating.  But the Government and its partners took action to build resilience.  When another major cyclone hit Bangladesh in 2007, there was still a tragic death toll.  But, it was much less — with 4,000 lives lost, and countless others saved.

Although we can never prevent all natural disasters, we can go a very long way towards protecting people from their effects.

I have long been an advocate for the right of all people to safe water and satisfactory sanitation.

In disaster situations, these needs are even more acute.

Proper sanitation is basic to disaster preparedness, as you have concluded today.

The Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation recognized this in the 2006 Hashimoto Action Plan, calling for stepped-up efforts to quickly deliver sanitation services in disasters.

Without sanitation and sewage systems, water-borne diseases can break out and rapidly spread through populations that often are already afflicted.

We cannot avoid all disasters.  But, we can work together to protect people who have survived a tsunami, earthquake or a flood from a new outbreak of disease.

These disasters can hit any country at any time.  Just remember Hurricane Sandy last October hitting vehemently this area, this city, in fact, this building.  That is why we have to do more than address sanitation problems during sudden storms — we have to give them high priority in our development efforts.

We must address the global disgrace of thousands of people who die every day in silent emergencies caused by dirty water and poor sanitation.

Despite the urgency of the situation, we are lagging in our response.  The world is disturbingly far from reaching the Millennium Development Goal for improved sanitation.

Let me give you the perspective of one person, a woman in Uganda who lives in a settlement with 10,000 people and only a few toilets.

She lost six of her nine children to cholera.

This is just one of countless similar stories and examples.

As you know, diarrhoea is the second biggest killer of children in the world.

We have known for a long time that the best cure is prevention through sanitation facilities and safe drinking water.  But, this realization has not yet been translated into tangible action.  Still today, our world has some 2.5 billion people who live without basic sanitation.

We must mobilize and change this shameful situation — for the affected individuals, for the sake of healthy communities and for our world.

The World Bank has determined that poor sanitation has a massive impact on a country’s gross domestic product (GDP).  For example, in Cambodia the cost of poor sanitation in 2008 was equivalent to more than 7 per cent of its GDP.  New research shows that when children repeatedly suffer from diarrhoea, their immune systems are weakened.  This may lead to stunting, reduced cognitive capacity, and a host of life-threatening conditions.

There is reason to be outraged by these human tragedies.  But, we should know and recognize that we can prevent them.

That is why I am an active champion for new momentum and a new push for the Sanitation Drive to 2015.  The General Assembly called for this effort in a 2010 resolution to accelerate actions to meet the Sanitation MDG target.

Parallel and integrated with this accelerated Sanitation Drive, we must promote efforts worldwide to end open defecation by 2025, a major reason for spreading of diseases and contamination of water resources.

I am committed to advancing progress on this front by bringing together all partners for concrete action — the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, civil society and the private sector.

His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange and the Crown Prince of Japan have been especially dedicated to this issue.  We need more eminent champions like them and are deeply grateful to them.

I also thank the High-level Panel on Water and Disaster and Dr. Han Seung-soo for the important role he has played for our work and for this meeting.

And I thank you all for the firm and active attention you are giving an issue which means the difference between life and death, the difference between devastation and a life in dignity for many millions of people around the world.

Now, we have to carry this effort forward into the future.  We must usher in a world where water and sanitation needs are met and where we are adequately prepared for disaster situations.  You have made a substantial contribution to this goal by today’s thematic session of the General Assembly.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.