11/19/2014 09:02 EST | Updated 01/19/2015 05:59 EST

The Humble Toilet: A Lifeline for the Most Vulnerable


There are few things in the world that are so precious and yet so taken for granted as clean water and good sanitation. With water available at the turn of a tap, it's hard to imagine the pain and conflict parents must experience when giving their children water so dirty it could kill them, because they simply have no choice. And I'm sure we've all experienced unpleasant toilets, but it's all too easy to forget how lucky we are to have somewhere safe and private to go to the bathroom in the first place.

Millions of people around the world don't have to imagine. In fact, 748 million people lack access to safe, clean water while a staggering 2.5 billion face the indignity and danger of having no access to improved sanitation.

To mark World Toilet Day on 19 November, WaterAid has released figures showing that since the year 2000, when the world committed to the Millennium Development Goals, 10 million children under the age of five have died needlessly from diseases related to water and sanitation.

Through my work with WaterAid Canada (formerly WaterCan), I've met just a small number of the people affected by this global crisis, but their stories remain with me always. On a recent visit to Mali, I spoke to Coulibaly Sounaba, a mother from the village of Fabougoula, who struggled to tell me how many children she had. Why? Nine of them had died.

She was not alone. It's not uncommon for mothers in her village to lose children, with lack of clean water and sanitation playing a large part.

A lack of access to these simple services can result in diarrhea, parasites, infections, weakened immune systems and sepsis, which are particularly dangerous for women giving birth and their vulnerable children. Diarrheal diseases caused by lack of water and sanitation claims the lives of 1,400 children every single day. That's one child a minute dying for want of such basic things as water and a toilet.

I've experienced the indescribable pain of losing a child. To have such tragedy happen again and again unnecessarily is unacceptable, as it doesn't have to be this way. The solution is simple, yet requires strong commitments and collaboration across governments and sectors.

I've also been fortunate enough to see first-hand how organisations such as WaterAid are working with communities to install water and sanitation facilities and set up management committees to ensure the projects remain successful. And I've been honoured to witness the overwhelming difference that clean water and sanitation can make.

I was humbled by the pride of villagers in Meni Kassara as they showed me their safe water and sanitation facilities. They knew all too well the true value of these simple services.

Before water pumps were installed, women would get up as early as 2 a.m. to collect water from an unsafe well far from the village, risking dangers along the way. They had no choice but to drink from and wash in the same water the animals were drinking and defecating in.

Now, not only has their health and that of their families improved, but they are also free from the burden of water collection, giving them the gift of time to spend with their families and earn a living.

School attendance has improved and the children take part in school hygiene clubs to pass on life-saving practices to their families, ensuring the changes trickle down through generations.

Their lives have been completely transformed. Everyone everywhere deserves to have these same opportunities.

Canadians can be proud of our aid and its focus on child and maternal health. It's what aid should be about - giving a lifeline to those most vulnerable. I only hope that we will all continue to recognize the provision of safe, clean drinking water and good sanitation as a critical driver of poverty alleviation and a global health.

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