The basic facts are simple, but the implications are horrendous.  Half the world's people (and three fifths of those who live in developing countries) do not have ready access to safe drinking water, and even more (three fourths of the developing countries' populations) have no sanitary facilities of any kind.   

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that water-related diseases claim as many as 25 million lives a year and cause untold illness.  UNICEF calculates that 15 million children die every year before reaching their fifth birthday.  Half of them could be saved if they had access to safe drinking water.  The World health Organisation states: "Approximately 80 per cent of all sickness and disease can be attributed to inadequate water or sanitation.  Typical of these illnesses are diarrhoea, trachoma, parasitic worms and malaria."  

Water is a matter of life and death, but short of that it can also spell economic disaster.  Droughts and floods are familiar phenomena in many parts of the world, and in India, for example, water-borne diseases are responsible for the loss of 73 million working days every year.  The cost of this, in terms of medical treatment and lost production, is something like $600 million annually. 

While water and sanitation problems touch directly or indirectly nearly all the populations of developing countries, especially those in desert or semi-arid zones, some groups are particularly affected.  These include women and children.  The children, as was noted earlier, would stand a much greater chance of living to age five if their conditions were improved.  

As for women, their primary role in much of the world is to seek out sources of water and then to carry it back to where it is needed for irrigation, for cooking and for sanitary purposes.  Thus in rural Upper Volta, for instance, women may walk up to five or six kilometres several times a day seeking water.  The time and energy they consume in fetching water from long distances might otherwise be devoted to caring for their families, or to education or income earning pursuits of benefit to the entire community. 

"Carrying water is a task that only women perform.  It becomes even more arduous and time-consuming when women are being encouraged to practise better hygiene in the home, and their need for water correspondingly increases.  The improvements demand that they travel to and from the river several times a day, and carry two or more containers at a time.  This is very strenuous, especially for the old and for expectant mothers." 

Eddah Gachukia, a Kenyan Member of Parliament