Tapping the Power of Water

More is at stake than individual health; international security is at risk. Experts have identified water as the number one global risk in terms of significant negative impact on countries in the coming decade. Water can either be a source of conflict or cooperation.
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The idea of a magic elixir that could fight disease, promote health and even prevent violence sounds like a flight of fancy. But we have this in our hands, and we have a way to make it available to all people on Earth.

Far from being the preserve of a secret elite, this substance is so common that it makes up the vast majority of our bodies and our planet: Water.

Too often underappreciated where it is plentiful and always ignored at our peril, clean water is essential to stopping the needless deaths of children, enabling women to enjoy the greater safety they deserve, and even promoting stability among countries in water-scarce regions. Along with sanitation, water holds the key to sparing suffering and averting death for millions of people. But only if we seize the moment to realize this potential.

That moment comes in just a matter of weeks when world leaders gather at the United Nations for an historic summit to adopt a new global agenda to end poverty and usher in a life of dignity for all.

Girls use a hand washing station made with recycled bottles at a school in Totorenda, Chuquisaca department, Bolivia. © UNICEF/NYHQ2015/Bolivia/Gilbertson VII

This ambitious vision, embodied in a comprehensive, universal set of concrete goals, combines the environmental, social and economic aspects of development. The holistic and cross-cutting nature of the agenda is designed to ensure that progress will support the well-being of present and future generations.

In order to solve this development puzzle, leaders had to get the water challenge right, balancing all interests and imperatives. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) are to achieve this, tapping water resources to provide a range of services that underpin poverty reduction, economic growth and environmental sustainability.

Understanding how these work in tandem becomes clear when you consider the millions of children who suffer in deepest need of clean water or sanitation. They may be refugees, forced to flee their homes, or slum-dwellers, living in over-crowded and under-serviced neighborhoods, or the rural poor, located far from modern facilities. Without clean drinking water and proper sanitation, their nutrition is lamentably poor. That leads to stunting, which affects more than 160 million children who suffer irreversible physical and cognitive damage.

A billion people are forced by circumstances to defecate in the open -- a situation that leads to a staggering 1.6 million deaths from diarrheal diseases every year. That amounts to some 4,400 people dying every day from causes we could prevent with intention and action.

Improving sanitation and hygiene generates benefits for individuals and society, across sectors. A child with clean water and proper toilet facilities has on average far better health, a longer life and greater success in school and at work. In Mali, community-based interventions to prevent open defecation have cut diarrhea-related deaths by more than half, opening a promising future for children who would otherwise not have lived to see their fifth birthday.

Children pump water at a water point in Libo Kemkem Woreda, Oromia State, Ethiopia 4 July 2013. © UNICEF/Ethiopia/2013/Ose

Sustainable Development Goal 6 presents an opportunity to address the entire water cycle: access, quality, efficiency and the integrated management of water resources and related ecosystems. Success will require holding governments to account, strengthening systems and addressing the full life-cycle of people. Children need water at health clinics, girls and young women need private toilets at school, and all people need fair, equitable and universal access.

More is at stake than individual health; international security is at risk. Experts have identified water as the number one global risk in terms of significant negative impact on countries in the coming decade. Water can either be a source of conflict or cooperation. The choice should be obvious

If the task of development seems too difficult, we only have to look back over the past 15 years for inspiration. The Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000, constituted the largest antipoverty push in history. That effort resulted in access to improved sources of drinking water for more than 90 percent of the world's population, with roughly two thirds finally having a toilet.

Those left behind are the poorest and most vulnerable, who suffer a grave injustice. When we right that wrong by providing clean drinking water and decent sanitation to all, we will advance health, justice and security around the world.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 6.

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