This June, The Lancet published an article titled "The Politics of Reducing Malnutrition." Malnutrition, a problem with a direct connection to water and sanitation, is one that's completely solvable with the right technology. There have been so many attempts to fix the
water quality crisis, the public seems to have grown tired of it, and its impacts - especially malnutrition - have been swept under the proverbial rug. This means that when major international bodies discuss next steps in improving access to clean water, the
socio-political implications that should be blazingly obvious also end up under the rug.
A child who experiences severe malnutrition under the age of two will suffer a lifelong impact on their health. Stunted growth is among the many physical and psychological impacts of malnutrition and impacts much more than a person's height. It touches on organ growth
including, most powerfully, the brain, and increases the risk to irreversible brain damage. The idea that much of the world's population -- the World Food Programme reports that 1 in 3 children in developing countries experience this -- are operating at a less than optimal level has mind-boggling implications when you think about human capacity for development and innovation.
Even more impactful than food shocks, the leading cause of malnutrition is diarrheal disease, which is brought about by a lack of access to safe water and sanitation. Repeated bouts of pathogen exposure irritate the intestines to the degree that they cannot take up nutrients needed for healthy growth.
The solution to solving this crisis should be obvious -- reduce exposure to unsafe water and increase opportunities for sanitary behaviors. It seems that the fix is in, however, as we speak, UN agencies and national stakeholders are currently debating the targets for the Sustainable Development Goals, the next global agenda for aid and development that will succeed the Millenium Development Goals in 2015. Under current debate is how water and sanitation should be measured, with some advocating that the western countries' quality thresholds should be lowered in the global south to meet measurements of feasibility.
At this point, to frame malnutrition as a humanitarian issue, and to not acknowledge the socio-political and technological implications that cause it, is extremely short-sighted and totally unproductive. "International development" is a self-perpetuating industry like any other, and depends on demand as well as supply. It also depends on a modicum of traction. The MDGs are widely understood as having basically failed in Sub-Saharan African countries, and some are
advocating that "lower standards" for the SDGs promises a higher rate of success. This is not to conspiratorially suggest that anyone in the aid and development industries is consciously exacerbating issues caused by poor water sanitation in order to stay in business, but it is to say that these organizations aren't exhumed from ingrained racist ideals about who-deserves what quality of what. It's also to say that there's pressure for the SDG's related to water to succeed
more than those of the MDG's, and a lower water sanitation requirement makes this easier to achieve. It appears that the SDG discussions are already making "progress" compared with the MDGs. The MDG's defined water quality only as a proxy indicator -- "access to improved source" -- while the SDG's will establish a numerical threshold. If that threshold is flawed and allows for a false pretense of "development" instead of actually making any strides, this superficial display will make the SDG's related to water completely destructive.
It is argued that people in countries outside of the United States, Canada and Western Europe have built up the necessary natural bacteria to fight-off diseases caused by poor water quality, and thus require a lower water quality minimum threshold.
This is totally incorrect. A lower quality requirement does nothing to impact infants at risk for malnutrition and it's concurrent ugly and mortal side effects. Anyone who has yet to come into this world, no matter what continent they are born on, has the same human needs when
they exit the womb.
mWater is an organization that created a mobile phone app that can monitor water sources for contamination. CEO Dr. Annie Feighery argues that standards should not be diluted because adults who have survived unsafe water sources as children are not comparable to infants
experiencing water sources for the first time, "When infants are weaned and unsafe water is first introduced into their system, they do not have the gut flora necessary to defend themselves from high levels of pathogens. When they start eating solids that aren't washed in clean water, they typically experience their first bout of severe diarrhea at about six months." A few bouts of diarrhea, complicated by other environmental insults such as lung infection from cookstove air
immediately throws a child off their growth curve, and puts them on track to malnutrition. Dr. Feighery says, "Whenever a child experiences malnutrition at the first two years of their lives they will suffer mental and physical stunting for life -- resulting in even more complex problems like maternal complications and lower wage capacity."
This seemingly small detail - policy talks and numbers among huge international bodies - is incredibly telling in terms of the inherent biases implicit in every aspect of our system. Aid is political.
Follow Amanda Sperber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@hysperbole