A Tale of Sanitation: What Somalia Teaches Us

As we struggle to respond to this humanitarian catastrophe, we must remember that Somalis are in need of more than access to food, but also safe water, sanitation, shelter and healthcare.
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The confirmation of cholera deaths in Somalia offers a chilling reminder of what happens when there is no safe water and inadequate sanitation. The refugee crisis in Somalia is fueled by the worst drought in the horn of Africa in over 60 years.

This humanitarian disaster is a glaring example of the international community's failure to uphold basic needs and rights of some of our planet's most vulnerable people. As we struggle to respond to this humanitarian catastrophe, we must remember that Somalis are in need of more than access to food, but also safe water, sanitation, shelter and healthcare.

For many of Somalia's poorest citizens, who have walked for days and miles, drinking contaminated water, and staying in crowded camps, deadly diseases including cholera may be a tragic but predictable end result. Up to 100,000 people have crowded into Mogadishu, seeking shelter, food and water. More arrive each day in Mogadishu and in overflowing camps in neighboring Kenya.

Experts estimate that more than 29,000 children under the age of five have already died from the combination of drought, famine and illness. Diarrhea is on the rise in overcrowded shelters where there is a shortage of safe water and large numbers of weak and malnourished children. These conditions provide a breeding ground for infectious diseases, including measles, cholera and pneumonia. On August 18th, Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization, said, "We don't see the end of it."

Unfortunately this comment could apply to more than just cholera. The world has watched for more than two decades as the Somalis have struggled to finally build a nation and live lives in dignity. We know that goals for development, peace and security cannot be achieved if we do not act quickly to get humanitarian relief to Somalia. We cannot stand by while more than one third of Somalia's citizens face disease and starvation.

In 1993 as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, I helped to open up humanitarian corridors in Sudan that prioritized people over politics. These corridors made it possible to get vital supplies to the people who needed them in a more timely fashion. It is a failure of shared humanity if we do not respond quickly in a similar way to the situation in Somalia.

The Somali women and children who are the cornerstone of family life and economic stability need more than immediate assistance -- they need hope for the future. The international community must support the building of infrastructure and institutions that will insure that Somalia can feed and care for its own people. Somalia has the eighth highest birth rate in the world, with the average family size around seven. Population pressure clearly impacts resource distribution and economic security in Somalia.

The much needed infrastructure should include early access to primary care as part of the emergency response and a viable public health infrastructure for the nation. The primary care package must include immunization, essential medicines and family planning services. There is no reason a child should die of diarrhea or hunger, and no reason for a woman to die in childbirth. The women of Somalia must be able to give birth safely and plan for the number and spacing of their children. Saving the lives of women and children by the provision of basic care, including access to family planning services, safe water and sanitation must be our priority.

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