More than twenty percent of the five thousand children who die every year in East Timor, do so through preventable diseases caused by poor sanitation and drinking unclean water, according to a new supplementary report released by aid agency WaterAid Australia.
The NGO said despite poor or non-existent sanitation facilities being the leading cause of death amongst the country’s children, the water and sanitation crisis receives scant attention from international donors and is neglected by the central government.
Released in late November and timed to coincide with World Toilet Day, the study is a supplement to an earlier international WaterAid report “Fatal Neglect: How Health Systems Are Failing to Comprehensively Address Child Mortality.” The study, released in May, covered the link between sanitation and child deaths throughout the world.
The East Timor review said the NGO welcomed increased funding to the country to battle other major issues such as HIV/AIDS prevention and malaria control but added more international and government funding was needed to help improve sanitation and water facilities.It said while improving and building adequate sanitation facilities was “…the most effective and efficient means of preventing diarrhoea,” it quoted both World Bank and UNICEF figures that showed the sector “… receives extremely low priority from donors and the national government” in East Timor.
The study said that it would not necessarily be expensive to improve the country’s sanitation infrastructure.
“The sanitation improvements that will dramatically improve child mortality and general community health in Timor-Leste are relatively cheap and easily implemented,” it claimed.
“A community which is empowered to improve its health and sanitation requires relatively modest financial support to build basic toilets and bring in complementary measures including soap and hygiene promotion,” the report concluded.
Speaking to Radio Australia following the release of the document, James Wicken, head of policy & advocacy at WaterAid Australia, described East Timor’s poor sanitation coverage as both a “cause and a symptom of poverty,” adding that “…water, sanitation and hygiene [were] the basic building blocks for reducing poverty and reaching prosperity.”
He added that when the three had been put into place, progress could then be made in other areas such as education and health, which would then provide the means for people to rise out of poverty and achieve prosperity and quality of life.
Of the three elements, water supply, sanitation and hygiene, Mr Wicken suggested it was changing people’s behavior in relation to hygiene practices which was proving the most difficult.
“We have to find more innovative…and effective ways of getting people to change their behavior,” he said.
However he said he remains confident that where a determined political will exists from the Government, combined with increased international funding, great strides could be made in sanitation and hygiene improvements which would see a steep decline in the number of child deaths attributed to poor sanitation and dirty water.
While applauding the Australian Government for carrying through with its election promise to increase its allocation of foreign aid to East Timor in these areas, the NGO said more needed to be done to improve East Timor’s child mortality rates.
“We congratulate the Government for implementing its election policy of shifting $300 million of the international aid budget to provision of clean water, toilets and sanitation services, but more needs to be done,” said WaterAid Australia CEO Adam Laidlaw in a statement.
“The bad news is that official aid programs are not doing enough to prevent diarrhoea…it is the biggest killer of children in Timor Leste and the second-leading killer of children under age 5 globally after acute respiratory infections like pneumonia.”
He added that major steps against the killer disease diarrhoea can be made by simple education programs in basic hygiene and disposal of feces.
“If a child is malnourished or regularly ill during the first few years of life, there are consequential negative effects on future cognitive development, education and productivity,”he said.
“The good news is that diarrhoea rates can be slashed by 36% when people have the facilities to safely dispose of feces and another 45% by simply washing their hands with soap and water,” said Mr Laidlaw.
Mr Laidlaw said the “…quickest, cheapest and most sustainable way that Australian aid dollars can save lives in Timor-Leste is to provide water and sanitation.”
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