06/14/2012 02:54 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2012

Our Steadfast Resolve to Halt Needless Child Deaths


Barbara Frost, Chief Executive, WaterAid

Adam Laidlaw, Chief Executive, WaterAid Australia

Cecilia Chatterjee-Martinsen, Chief Executive, WaterAid Sweden

With all the amazing medical and social advances we enjoy today, it's staggering to think that around 700,000 children's lives could be saved over the next year by doing something as simple as providing clean water, safe sanitation and hygiene promotion.

The presidents and ministers arriving in Washington D.C. this week for the Child Survival: Call to Action conference (June 14-15), should have this at the forefront of their minds.

The ambition of this conference is both massive and massively commendable. The aim is to do nothing less than establish a road map to end all preventable under-five child deaths.

At WaterAid we see firsthand the dreadful impact that a lack of water, sanitation and hygiene -- WASH -- makes on children's lives. Diarrheal disease is the second biggest killer of children globally. A scandalous 801,000 children under five succumbed to this preventable disease in 2010. With 88% of these deaths, according to the World Health Organization, attributable to a lack of WASH -- this means 700,000 deaths in just 2010.

This means that a lack of access to clean water, safe sanitation and hygiene promotion is killing more children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

The impact though doesn't end there -- lack of WASH is also a major contributor to child under-nutrition. This is why WaterAid is a core partner in the Call to Action, and why safe drinking water, improved hygiene and sanitation are critical to the agenda.

The Child Survival: Call to Action conference should be welcomed, supported and engaged with by the international community. The outcomes of this conference should contribute to any global development efforts put in place to follow on from the Millennium Development Goals after 2015.

In India - home to the largest number of people without access to water and sanitation - the situation has been improving steadily but slowly. According to the latest figures, access to sanitation has improved from less than one-in-five (18%) in 1990 to over a third today (34%). Over 800 million people still live without sanitation in India, while 379 million go without safe drinking water. As a result, over 186,000 children under the age of five died in India alone in 2010 from diarrheal disease attributable to a lack of these essential life saving services.

It is good to see that the Indian and Ethiopian Governments have been given positions of global leadership as co-hosts at this conference alongside the US Government and UNICEF. WaterAid conducts water, sanitation and hygiene promotion program work in both these countries, as well as 25 others around the globe providing these services to some of the world's poorest people. In our visits to WaterAid's country programs, we have seen with our own eyes the difference that these basic services can make, not only on health but on overall development and well being.

Through three decades of work in this field we have understood that the challenge of poverty and lack of access to safe water and sanitation is integrally connected to good health and education. Consequently, integrated aid programs result in more effective and lasting solutions.

Last September, together with six other aid agencies we issued a joint report; "Join up, Scale up: How integration can defeat disease and poverty" (you can read about it on Huffington Post here). The report highlights examples across 17 countries of how bringing different development approaches together -- or integration -- is working to help tackle poverty and disease.

This focus on integration is shared by those bringing governments together in Washington. WASH must be seen as an important part of the comprehensive package of essential life-saving interventions. While other interventions such as vaccines, micronutrient supplements and essential medicines have a crucial part to play in improving child survival, access to water, sanitation and hygiene is the long term sustainable answer that leads to not just fewer deaths, but also to greater human and economic development.

The scale of the water and sanitation crisis has conversely resulted in its being pushed into the background as a longer-term objective. These attitudes have had an impact, with the WASH sector receiving an ever smaller share of international aid spending over the last ten years, despite hygiene promotion and sanitation being recognized as one of the most highly cost-effective interventions available. The fact that diarrhea remains such as significant contributor to child mortality should therefore come as no surprise.

Despite this, WaterAid is pleased that ending open defecation has been recognized as one of the long term goals of this initiative. Not only is it an indicator of success, it has a very real and immediate impact on reducing the contamination that spreads disease and leads to death. It's a marker of potential progress in other areas, as well -- what the Call to Action highlights as social determinants of health -- such as violence against women and girls, promotion of healthy behaviors, and access to education.

The Child Survival: Call to Action has a real chance of generating the concrete proposals, actions, timetable and monitoring to become a successful new approach to ending preventable child deaths. In particular the launch of the multi-year "Promise to Keep" initiative to hold governments, UN agencies, civil society and private sector partners to account by maintaining momentum on global commitments is crucial.

WaterAid will play an active and supportive role, and we will be a critical friend to identify where the international community and its partners can do things better, faster and more efficiently. The goal, due to its simple but powerful focus, is one that we can all understand and appreciate. It is difficult to think of a more honourable endeavour than ending preventable child deaths. The challenge is one that we will have to engage in for years and decades to come if we are to be successful. WaterAid is ready to meet this challenge, however long it takes.