annan-1I am very happy to be here because I think this panel is addressing the very basics of life. We all know about our own needs for water, sanitation and hygiene, and we know our anguish for the few hours we may be without it. So it should not take too much imagination to understand the plight of those whose daily lives are determined by the absence of sanitation or easily accessible water.

Today we are going to talk about women and children and it is them that I am meeting when I travel around the world with my husband. I have seen how hard women work to be able to give their children something to eat or send them to school. But access to water and sanitation is necessarily a community concern and the special needs of women and children have to be understood at a political level. Because it is the women and girls who bear the brunt of the burden of lack of safe water and sanitation. They are the ones carrying the water and managing it. They are the ones washing babies and infants, and they are the ones most intimidated by the lack of sanitation.

Last week I was talking to a group of women on the outskirts of Maputo, where the community was directly involved in the installation of water, latrines and drainage. Never before had I so directly felt the relationship between the work of policy-makers and what happens on the ground. I told these women, as we were straddling one of the ditches of the drainage system, that next week the leaders of the world would meet to discuss exactly what they were confronting in their daily lives. The reality of life very, very present in the faces of these older women, who had seen so much hardship, would be molded into the abstract words of documents.

In a flashback, I remembered another older woman from across the continent in northern Ghana, in a part of the country with little water resources. We were to visit a town, Saveluga, where pipelines had recently been laid, significantly reducing the rate of guinea worm infection. It had been a long day and we were hopelessly late. As we arrived, the skies opened up in a downpour of rain. We listened to the Mayor of the town and the chairman of the Water Commission Board and found out that one of the members was a woman. She was an older woman dressed in traditional garb.

She would have been illiterate but when she started to speak, we knew she was driven by the passion of somebody who understood the importance of water. She discussed in detail how the town had chosen between the different options available, and did not lose the opportunity to plead that the borehole which already had been drilled would get the necessary mechanical rigging.

Low-cost water supply systems including handpumps installed on hand dug wells and boreholes are widely used in these countries since they are appropriate for water points serving widely dispersed rural populations. Many pump types have been used over the years. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a high proportion, around 30 and 40 per cent, of handpumps to be out of operation at any given time. Despite their relative simplicity and low cost, ensuring that water supply systems provide reliable and sustainable service continues to be a great challenge. That is why clear community ownership and management is so important, including technical back-up for problems beyond the capacity of the community. In many countries, women have been trained to look after the pumps since they are the most at stake when the systems do not function.

But clean water alone is not enough; it has to be accompanied by sanitation and hygiene. Last Sunday I was happy to visit the UN-Habitat exhibition in the Water Dome and I hope you will too. Right in the center, there is an example of an alternative toilet, promoted by UN-Habitat and the Intermediate Technology Development Group of the UK. This low-cost toilet system turns solid matter into compost, which can be used by farmers as fertilizer. And there are also replicas of the Sulabh Sanitation Movement’s toilets in India, which replace the degrading job of daily cleaning of people’s latrines in their homes, with an affordable, sustainable and culturally acceptable toilet. Their center-stage position in the exhibition mirrors the important breakthrough of the understanding of sanitation, reflected in the adoption of sanitation as one of the priority goals of this conference.

Sanitation is necessary to preserve human dignity and, for girls and women, to protect themselves against assault. As a woman, I know we are much more vulnerable. The lack of latrines even stops young girls from going to school. It was not by chance that the teacher in the classroom in a camp for displaced persons in Angola mentioned a newly built latrine as one of their achievements. And then  the words have been heard so often: ‘wash your hands before you eat’; ‘wash your hands after you have been to the toilet’. They become more than formal niceties when you read that the simple act of washing hands at key times with soap and water could reduce the death toll from diarrhoeal disease by more than a third.

Just to remind you, as graphically outlined in the new WASH publication, one gramme of faeces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1000 parasite cysts and 100 parasite eggs. Here I want to give you a little vignette from an encounter in Indonesia. I was walking through an old cemetery where squatters had settled. Suddenly I was stopped in my tracks seeing a young woman washing her two little girls in soap and water. The little girls were covered with foam and the mother had the most wonderful warm, proud smile. For this simple act to happen, she would have had to buy the water too expensively (which is usually the case for the poor), transport it to her home, get the soap and realize the benefits of good hygiene. It was a major achievement and she wanted me to know.

So you see, the energy and the will of women is out there, but in regard to water and sanitation, it has to be harnessed by strong, sturdy partnerships to lay down the necessary foundations.

The lessons I learned from Northern Ghana in terms of what women stand to gain from provision of safe drinking water, are lessons which I believe have a general application. They are:

  • It frees the inhabitants of a community from most water-borne diseases, reduces child mortality and gives the people, especially women, more time to engage in income-generating ventures thus reducing poverty;
  • Girls will be able to go to school;
  • It reduces the burden on women, the family water suppliers and managers;
  • It reduces conflicts in communities and stabilizes marriages. This is because, as my interlocutor explained, if life is too hard, which it is without water, divorce rates go up. Also young men are more eligible for marriage if they live where there is water supply;
  • Water enables women to engage in dry-season vegetable farming which helps to reduce malnutrition in the lean season;
  • It increases economic power, making women more confident to take up their political empowerment issues; and
  • Water provision in a rural community reduces migration to urban areas.

As the new WASH publication makes clear, achieving the WASH vision of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for all is one of the most important challenges for sustainable development. Women are the key players and partners. And I, for one, will continue to play my part in whatever way I can.