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Treat water as a basic human right

By Tania Ngima | March 22nd 2016 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

NAIROBI: Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Number 6 addresses availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. As we observe the World Water Day today, it is important to focus our attention on the strides we have made in relation to water sustainability and the ways in which we have fallen short.

SDG 6 not only has a strong linkage to many of the other goals developed in the 2015 New York meeting, but also the ability to underpin them. From poverty, hunger and food security, healthy lives and well-being to quality education and girl-child empowerment, this SDG would go a long way towards achieving much of the 2030 agenda.

I’m sure that it is just a coincidence that the World Water Day falls in the same month as the International Women’s Day.

But what is more apt is that water issues affect women-related development to a significant extent. A UN fact sheet cites that women in Africa and Asia cover six kilometres to collect water, while lactating women have a basic requirement of 7.5 litres a day, a quantity that is out of reach for a large percentage of mothers with young children.

The burden of water collection also increases the likelihood of girls missing school since household and domestic care generally falls on women. At any one time, close to half the people in developing countries are suffering from health-related problems caused by poor water and sanitation, with these being the second biggest killer of children.

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The fact sheet states that 443 million school days are lost each year to water-related illnesses, and that people living in the slums of Manila, Jakarta and Nairobi pay five to 10 times more for water than those living in high-income areas and more than consumers in cities like London or New York. In 2002, the Committee on Social, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted an article that stated that the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life with human dignity, and a prerequisite of other human rights. This sentiment was further reiterated in July 2010 by a United Nations General Assembly Resolution. However, water scarcity in both quality and quantity has become such an integral part of our daily lives that we automatically structure our existence with safeguard against expected shortages.

We have gone to the extent that when looking for housing, one of the main considerations is whether the area we want to live in experiences water shortages, and to which extent.

‘Clean water’ delivery trucks are a common feature of urban living, making a significant amount of money from residents’ plight.
Unfortunately, even as we put in place mechanisms to deal with water and sanitation issues, there is a significant part of the population that does not have access to these solutions.

In the past week, an interaction with one of my readers, a specialist in the water services sector, brought some often overlooked issues to light. From the aesthetic effects of not having clean and safe drinking water to the health risks posed by contaminated sources, our circumstances belie the fact that water is a basic human right.

According to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, close to 56 per cent of Kenyans rely on underground water mainly collected from wells and boreholes. Data from scientific research indicate that majority of the underground water sources in Kenya contain fluoride levels above the World Health Organisation limit of 1.5 milligrams per litre.

Furthermore, upon consumption of water with high fluoride levels, the fluoride gets attracted to calcium in the bones and teeth and forms irreversible damage; conditions known as skeletal and dental fluorosis respectively.

Dental fluorosis is an irreversible condition that stains the teeth brown, leading to self-confidence issues and restricting the potential career opportunities the affected can access. The only way to remedy it is through cosmetic surgery such as veneers which are expensive and out of reach for most Kenyans.

Other than the aesthetic aspect, excessive fluoride consumption affects the bones, causing skeletal fluorosis which has the potential to cause bone deformation and incapacitation.

In a bid to counter these effects, Kenyans especially in the urban areas turn to bottled water for human consumption. In addition to fluoride content we, unlike in developed countries, do not trust our tap water enough to drink it without treating it.

Now more Kenyans are turning to either branded varieties or the filling stations located in malls and supermarkets, as these give the guarantee of protection from pathogens. Store bought water therefore becomes more of a necessity than a luxury.

However, our taxation system treats water differently. Excise tax, levied on such ‘sin’ goods as alcohol and cigarettes, is also levied on water, completely ignoring the fact that purchasing bottled water is not an alternative, but the only viable option for those who choose not to consume excessive fluoride or water from potentially contaminated sources.

Our progress towards making safe water accessible for citizens still has a long way to go and all players, especially the State, need to treat it with the seriousness it warrants.


Sustainable Development Goal New York World Water Day
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