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Liberia's Long Road: Emergency to Sustainable Development

The water and sanitation situation is particularly critical. Three out of four people have no access to safe water, six out of seven are without access to toilets; diarrhea accounts for 19 percent of Liberia's high child mortality rates ...
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The road trip from Monrovia to River Gee County in Liberia's far eastern corner is a long and wearying one. Fourteen years of civil war have taken their toll on this proud country's infrastructure and roads were a key casualty. Progress in rebuilding crucial services has been slow but steady, driven by Liberia's inimitable President and only female African head of state Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The challenges ahead however remain on a huge scale, especially with over 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

The water and sanitation situation is particularly critical. Three out of four people have no access to safe water, six out of seven are without access to toilets; diarrhea accounts for 19 percent of Liberia's high child mortality rates, and cholera is endemic. According to the World Health Organisation, diseases related to water, sanitation and hygiene are responsible for 18 percent of all deaths in the country.

The poor infrastructure has countless knock-on effects. Roads which are already difficult to navigate in the dry season are simply impassable in the rainy season. The nearest clinic for many of the far-flung villages in River Gee is a three to four hour walk away -- a perilous journey for anyone suffering with chronic diarrhea and in all likelihood malaria too. Then there are high operational costs involved in providing latrines and water pumps in rural areas because materials like cement need to be transported in.

WaterAid has been working with four communities in Tienpo district in River Gee for just over a year and is one of few international agencies working specifically on water and sanitation. In addition to the issues mentioned above, there have been difficulties acquiring local materials such as crushed rocks so specially trained rock breakers have had to be recruited from Monrovia, a two day drive away. This is the day-to-day reality of delivering fundamental services to just a few hundred people, so imagine the magnitude of the problem when attempting to scale up access nationwide.

In Liberia, as in neighbouring Sierra Leone, reminders of the conflict are everywhere, even after eight years of peace. Ruined buildings, the heavy presence of UN peacekeepers, amputees begging by the roadside, giant billboards exhorting that "Real men don't rape." Unlikely as it may sound, water can and should be a catalyst for development and peace.

In 2005 when I was President of the UN General Assembly, we defined the relationship between development and human rights as simply as possible: "there is no peace without development, but there is no development without peace. There is no lasting peace or sustainable development without respect of human rights." If you don't combine peace, development and human rights, you will not have stable progress. Access to safe, clean water is at the heart of each of these vital issues.

Very sadly I have seen water used as a weapon. When traveling with peace mediators in Darfur a couple of years ago, we were met by a group of women who chanted over and over: "We want water, we want water." Militia had poisoned the wells, meaning that the women had to walk for hours to collect water, filthy water that made their children sick.

In Liberia, the overwhelming emergency support in the immediate aftermath of the war unfortunately took little account of sustainability. In the case of water pumps for example, a number of the facilities provided at the time are now either broken and not in use, or they have run dry and so rehabilitation work is needed. When communities undertake the direct day-to-day management of projects themselves, they are far less likely to let essential services fall into disrepair. If projects are based on the communities' needs and are appropriate to their local environment, people will be committed to their success and long-term maintenance.

The Government of Liberia has made strong commitments to move from emergency to development approaches. The road is a long one, but people of good will -- both inside and outside the country -- stand ready to support these efforts led by President Johnson-Sirleaf.