With a growing global population of more than seven billion, water is increasingly becoming a scarce resource. Combined with the effects of climate change, this can be catastrophic for the world’s poorest, as we’ve seen following drought in the Sahel this year.

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The burden of water for women and girls

More than one in six people worldwide – 894 million – lack access to safe water (UN-Water), with over 40 per cent of them living in Sub-Saharan Africa. As the majority of people in rural Africa survive by growing their own crops, lack of access to reliable water sources means there is a double impact – not only is it difficult to get enough safe drinking water, it is also difficult to get enough to eat. And for women and girls there is the added burden of carrying water for long distances.

Global progress on safe drinking water

However, progress is being made, and earlier this year the UN reported that the Millennium Development Goal target of halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water has already been met, well in advance of the 2015 deadline. This was achieved due to around two billion people gaining access to improved drinking water sources, such as piped supplies and protected wells, between 1990 and 2010.

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Every 20 seconds, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation (UN-Water)

Unfortunately, the Millenium Development Goal for sanitation is way off target and over 2.5 billion people – including almost one billion children – still live without even basic sanitation (UN-Water). Unsafe water and sanitation facilities contribute to the spread of infections which cause diarrhoea and cholera. Globally, diarrhoea is the leading cause of illness and death.

Cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone

The British Red Cross has a mass sanitation emergency response team, ready to respond 24/7 to overseas emergencies such as floods, as water can become contaminated and have a negative impact on people’s health. This week, our team has been deployed to Sierra Leone to respond to a cholera outbreak which is affecting more than 10,000 people and has already killed at least 181 people.

Water and sanitation in Ethiopia

The British Red Cross also supports a water and sanitation programme in Ethiopia. Poor access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities causes major health problems for Ethiopians, with around 54,000 children dying each year directly from diarrhoea (UNICEF).

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Building resilience to water shortages

Earlier this year, when the UK suffered a drought nobody died as a result. The same cannot be said about the Sahel where there have been widespread deaths across many countries. To ensure future water shortages do not become increasingly catastrophic for the world’s poorest, communities which lack access to reliable sources of water, need help in building resilience to erratic weather patterns and droughts. This will require greater investment in:

  • access to drought-resistant seeds
  • improving irrigation and agricultural practices
  • support for women in small-scale farming.

Success for women in the Sahel

As women are usually responsible for a lot of the work in producing food for their families, but often lack access to resources, supporting them can make a huge difference, particularly in addressing child malnutrition.

Although millions of people across the Sahel are suffering from a terrible food crisis this year,
Habsatou Abdulaye, who lives in Burkina Faso, has a different story to tell. As part of a Red Cross programme which helps women establish vegetable gardens, she’s managed to grow enough food to help her eight children survive this year’s drought.

Read Habsatou’s story: seeds of a better future in the Sahel