World Summit on Sustainable Development-Johannesburg

Remarks by Mr. Kul C. Gautam
Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Children’s Fund
At the UNICEF Side Event on Water, Children and Poverty
World Summit on Sustainable Development
Johannesburg, 2 September 2002 

Previous speakers have spoken eloquently about how lack of water, sanitation and hygiene is harmful to child health and nutrition, and ultimately contributes to perpetuating the inter-generational transmission of poverty.
Different actions have been proposed for breaking this cycle of poverty. Reaching the millennium development goal of safe drinking water, and a similar goal for sanitation, which is still being negotiated at the WSSD, but let me remind you – we already have a sanitation goal agreed by world leaders 4 months ago at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children – would be a major contribution to reducing poverty.

But where do we start?
Of all the many actions needed to promote water, sanitation and hygiene, I would stress that one area to begin with would be in primary schools.  As most children in the world now do attend schools, and are a captive audience of their teachers for several years, that would be a good place to start.

Most schools in developing countries either lack appropriate sanitation facilities or the existing facilities are in unusable or unsafe condition. The result is that instead of being models of good sanitary practices, schools tend to be filthy places where diseases are transmitted and learning achievement is hampered due to the poor health status of students.
Millions of school-age children are infected by parasites and suffer from malnutrition and anemia which retard their physical development and learning capacity.

Although the lack of facilities and poor hygiene affects both girls and boys, poor sanitation conditions at schools have a greater negative impact on girls.  Girls are more likely not to enroll in or to drop-out of school because of their traditional responsibility to fetch water from long distances and to perform other household chores.

It is with this in mind that my boss Carol Bellamy in her speech to the plenary of WSSD last week called for a major global effort to ensure that in the course of this decade, every school in the world should have clean water supply and separate sanitary facilities for both girls and boys.
As an organization that has been in the forefront of supporting many low-cost and low-tech programmes in water and sanitation for the past 4 decades, UNICEF sees this as a worthy and feasible target. Its achievement in turn will have a positive impact in many other areas including learning achievement, greater gender equity, health and future productivity.
By helping improve enrolment and retention of girls in school, and by inculcating sanitary habits, universal access to school-based hygiene and sanitation education combined with safe drinking water in every school would be a powerful way to break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition, poor health and poverty.