Washington, Oct 20 : Providing toilets where needed and ensuring safe water supplies are the best way to beat the problem of crippling poverty and improve world health, says a new analysis by United Nations University (UNU).
According to the analysis, better water and sanitation reduces poverty in three ways-new service business opportunities are created for local entrepreneurs; ignificant savings are achieved in the public health sector; and ndividual productivity is greater in contributing to local and national economies.
In fact, UNU has even urged the world's research community to help fill major knowledge gaps that impede progress in addressing the twin global scourges of unsafe water and poor sanitation.
Information gaps include such seemingly obvious measures as common definitions and worldwide maps to identify communities most vulnerable to health-related problems as a result of poor access to sanitation and safe water.
UNU has also called for creation of a "tool-box" to help policy-makers choose between available options in local circumstances.
"Water problems, caused largely by an appalling absence of adequate toilets in many places, contribute tremendously to some of the world's most punishing problems, foremost among them the inter-related afflictions of poor health and chronic poverty," said Zafar Adeel, Director of the UN University's Canadian-based International Network on Water, Environment and Health.
He added: "It is astonishing that, despite all the attention these issues have received over decades, the world has not even properly mapped water and sanitation problems nor agreed on such terms as 'safe,' or 'adequate,' or 'accessible' or 'affordable,' all of which are in daily use by officials and policy-makers."
In the analysis, based on input of experts from several countries convened in Canada late last year, the experts offer a prescription for policy reform.
The analysis has asked the governments to adopt a more coordinated, integrated and interlinked approach to dealing with water and sanitation problems. Such efforts must be included in national economic development plans.
Also it has identified population growth, poverty, climate change, globalization and inappropriate policies on investment, urbanization, and intensification of agriculture as the five global trends most likely to exacerbate water supply and sanitation problems in years to come.
"The UN's Millennium Development Goal, agreed in the year 2000, committed nations to halve by 2015 the number of people who lack safe water and adequate toilet facilities," said Adeel.
"Poor health, especially chronic illness, can force a household below the poverty threshold," said the analysis.
This becomes self-perpetuating as a poverty-stricken household is more prone to ill health. Low education levels and lack of knowledge further maintain this cycle, as understanding links between hygiene and waterborne diseases tend to come more easily to households with higher education levels.
The findings may be useful mainly for women and girls, improving household health, reducing the time spent to collect water and providing a safe and dignified environment for practising sanitation.
The analysis warns that microbial and chemical contamination of water and other new threats are emerging - from pharmaceuticals in drinking water to exposure to avian influenza brought by wild birds inhabiting wetlands.
The "toolbox" idea would involve "a virtual library and database of educational materials, technologies, governance, models, etc. would facilitate information exchange of both established and innovative tools."
"We need greater investment in the development of models to aid decision-making, reduce uncertainty and augment costly monitoring programmes. Combining these efforts with a vulnerability map for water-associated diseases can form the basis for evidence-based policy development," said Dr. Corinne Wallace, a leading water-health researcher at UNU-INWEH.
The results can be used for policy development, intervention, adaptation and mitigation purposes as well as the effect on achieving MDGs and global migration patterns.
The study is prepared for global policy makers and was released recently at the start of a two-day UNU-hosted international meeting in Hamilton, Canada.