A Little Less Luck and a Lot More Toilets

As I sit here writing this, I can't help but think about how lucky I am: lucky to have a good education; lucky to be able to travel extensively; lucky, in fact, to be alive.
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As I sit here writing this, I can't help but think about how lucky I am: lucky to have a good education; lucky to be able to travel extensively; lucky, in fact, to be alive.

I was raised by my uncle in the rural town of Kombewa, in Kenya. Mountainous and rocky, Kombewa is a regular destination for tourists who come to see the huge rock formations. Lying within the shores of Lake Victoria, much of the local economy revolves around fishing. It's a beautiful place to call home, yet life for most people is a daily struggle. The scourge of HIV is high, school dropout rates rampant and child marriages painfully common.

Fortunately for me, my uncle lives in relative comfort as a medical doctor for the community, so having clean water to drink and a safe place to go to the bathroom was rarely an issue for me. Like most kids, I didn't realize at the time just how lucky I was. Even today, more than sixteen million people in Kenya--nearly half of the population--don't have clean water to drink. Far more than that--more than three out of every five Kenyans--don't have access to even the most basic toilets. After spending hours a day collecting water, or focusing on other basic elements of survival, hand washing is often the farthest thing from the minds of my fellow Kenyans.

In my country, as in so many others, this combination of unsafe drinking water, uncontained human waste and compromised hygiene practices is a deadly one. In fact, it's part of the reason why my dad was always so busy at the clinic: Over 10,000 children die in Kenya each year from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation alone. The fact that I lived beyond my 5th birthday, grew tall and strong without suffering from stunting and had sufficient nutrition to attend and focus in school makes me one of the lucky ones.

But growing up with water that's safe to drink and a place to go to the bathroom shouldn't ever depend on luck. Clean water, toilets and hygiene education is a basic human right that should be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.

This week in New York, the world's most powerful and influential leaders are gathering to discuss some of the most pressing issues of our time: the conflict in Syria, nuclear disarmament, eradication of extreme poverty, the promotion of human rights and more. As a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Youth Champion, I'll be there too, with one very important message: when it comes to beating extreme poverty, we simply can't afford to leave anyone behind.

In the thirteen years since the Millennium Development Goals were first established, terrific progress has been made. Child death rates have dropped drastically, millions of people have access to antiretroviral therapy that turns HIV from a death sentence to a managed illness, and the target to halve the proportion of the world's population without access to safe water has not only been met, it was met five years ahead of schedule.

All of these successes deserve to be celebrated. Yet I am a Millennial, and if there's one thing that defines my generation, it's that unwavering optimism that we can do more, we can do better, and we can do it now.

Thankfully, organizations like WaterAid are working hard to do just that. You see, behind the celebratory headlines lies a world in which clean drinking water remains out of reach for 768 million people. Worse yet, 2.5 BILLION people--40 percent of the world's population--still don't have access to toilets and sanitation.

That's a whole lot of people who are being left behind. And while it's bad news for everyone, it's particularly bad news for children and young people who are among those most deeply affected by the water and sanitation crisis and the continuing cycle of poverty.

So what can be done to tip the balance?

One powerful way it to tell your US Representative that you want him/her to support the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act. The Water for the World Act is a simple, yet highly effective way of making sure that the world's most marginalized communities remain front and center in US efforts to bolster access to water, toilets and the hygiene education that saves and improves lives. It prioritizes the needs of those being left behind, and focuses on increased dignity and wellbeing. It recognizes that something as simple as a toilet and good hand washing practices have ripple effects that can ultimately help families lift themselves out of poverty once and for all.

Once you've shown your support for the Water for the World Act, join me in calling for a bold and ambitious new development framework that brings together poverty eradication and sustainable development for a world where everyone, everywhere has access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene by the year 2030, starting with children and youth.

There are no quick fixes when it comes to development. Even so, I am convinced that poor towns across the world--from my beloved hometown Kombewa, to Madang, Papua New Guinea--can be free of open defecation and full of homes, schools and health centers with clean, drinkable water. I know it's an achievable goal. All that's needed now is less luck and more determined commitment to making it happen.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction around the United Nations General Assembly's 68th session and its general debate on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), "Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage" (September 24-October 2, 2013). The session will feature world leaders discussing progress made on the MDGs and what should replace them when they expire in 2015. To read all the posts in the series, click here; to follow the conversation on Twitter, find the hashtag #No1Behind. For more information about InterAction, click here.

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