Drinking water and sanitation: only 9 Arab countries are safe

Drinking Water and Sanitation is the title of the second installment in the series of articles we publish on health and the environment in Arab countries. This article is based on the chapter on the subject in the recent Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) report. The chapter was written by Dr. May Al-Jirdi, professor of environmental health at the American University of Beirut, along with Dr. Jomana Nasr, lecturer at the College of Health Sciences, and Rola Ajeeb, supervisor of the Environmental Health Laboratory at American University or Beirut.

Water, sanitation and hygiene services play a vital role in addressing emerging diseases, as confirmed by the successive calls currently launched by the World Health Organization to provide safe water and strengthen sanitation and hygiene services to stem the spread of the emerging Coronavirus .

In mid-2010, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in which access to drinking water and sanitation is a human right, as it is closely linked to the right to life and human dignity. The United Nations has also included the issue of water and sanitation as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (Goal Six), which calls for safe drinking water and basic sanitation for all people to be provided by 2030.

In the Arab world, the Arab League adopted the Arab Water Security Strategy for 2030 in 2012. She pointed out the close relationship between water, energy and food. However, these global and regional policies are still not achieving their ambitious goals in all developing countries, including Arab middle or low-income countries.

The “Health and Environment” report, recently released by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), discusses the key environmental factors that have a major impact on various aspects of human health in Arab countries, including issues related to the field of water and sanitation.

For example, the World Health Organization considers diarrheal diseases to be the leading cause of death for children under the age of five, accounting for 20% of all deaths. Unsafe water and untreated sewage, along with limited hygiene, poor food and climate change, are the most important factors in the increase and prevalence of diarrhea in middle or low-income countries.

While the number of deaths from diarrhea worldwide was 842 thousand in 2014. The number of deaths from diarrheal diseases related to water, sanitation and hygiene services in the Arab world in 2016 was about 29 thousand deaths.

Arabian water is declining and its quality is deteriorating

According to the overall burden of disease, expressed as the number of years of life lost as a result of ill health, disability or premature death, the years of healthy living lost to diarrhea in the Arab world in 2016 were nearly 2.4 million years. Most are located in Somalia, Mauritania, Comoros, Djibouti, Yemen and Sudan. Relationship to the population.

On the other hand, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia enjoy safe management and wide coverage in drinking water and sanitation, while air pollution, exposure to chemical pollutants and environmental and housing determinants remain the main environmental risk factors in these countries.

In other Arab countries, which represent about 57 percent of the Arab population, environmental risks related to water, sanitation, air pollution, exposure to chemicals, waste and food contamination increase the burden from infectious and non-communicable diseases.

The Arab region is one of the regions most vulnerable to water scarcity in the world due to limited renewable resources and the overexploitation of available resources. The 14 countries with the most water scarcity in the world are located in the Arab region. This reality is exacerbated by climate change, steady population growth, dependence on shared or transboundary water resources and weak water management.

The AFED report sees water scarcity as a critical challenge, exacerbated by the mismanagement of water resources, including the poor assessment of water resources in terms of quantity and quality. This scarcity also has a negative effect on the development and sustainability of drinking water and sanitation facilities.

Available figures indicate that about 90 percent of Arab citizens have access to safe drinking water, a percentage close to the world average. However, there is a need to develop sustainable programs to monitor water quality, as a direct indicator of its physical, chemical and biological safety.

Remediation and reuse

Safely managed sanitation facilities are available to about 29 percent of Arab citizens, which is low compared to the global average of 45 percent. Kuwaitis have the widest coverage for access to safe drinking water and sanitation at 100 percent, and in Lebanon these ratios drop to 48 percent for safe drinking water and to 22 percent for good sanitation.

The differences are not limited to wealthy and low-income countries, but also include rural and urban areas within the same country. It is noted that the poorest rural areas have the weakest access to safe water and sanitation.

Kuwait also sets itself apart by treating its entire sanitary drain and the competition in the Emirates is nearly 99%. While the percentage of treated wastewater in Mauritania is less than 0.7 percent, the wastewater treatment rates of other Arab countries vary between less than 50 percent in Lebanon, Libya, Algeria, Iraq and Morocco, and more than 50 percent in Egypt, Palestine, Tunisia , Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan.

Wastewater treatment and reuse is essential to provide water supply in most Arab countries, especially with climate change and increased demand due to population growth. It is well known in the GCC countries that wastewater treatment and reuse is indispensable to the supply of water as a means of reducing the financial burden and environmental impact of desalination.

Water aid to 17 countries

With regard to development aid to the water and sanitation sector, 17 Arab countries received $ 1.6 billion in subsidies in 2017. This is a good percentage compared to the total global official development assistance for the sector, which was $ 8.8 billion, benefiting 136 countries. Jordan’s share was the highest in the Arab world, with over half a billion dollars in subsidies.

While subsidies for external development make up a fraction of global spending on the water and sanitation sector, the amounts that some countries have received are impressive. The grant of about $ 58 million in official development assistance that Mauritania received accounted for nearly 60 percent of the country’s spending on this sector.

In general, this aid remains insufficient to meet the national objectives related to the sixth development objective in the field of drinking water and sanitation. By assessing the gap between available funding and water, sanitation and hygiene requirements, the gap was 68 percent in Lebanon and 47 percent in Palestine in 2017.

The report “Progress of the Sustainable Development Goals” for the year 2019 indicates that only 9 Arab countries, including Jordan, Tunisia and Lebanon, as well as the Gulf States, are on track to reach the sixth development goal. Meanwhile, the rest of the countries in the region are seeing stagnation or moderate progress towards this goal.

Poverty is the main challenge to the achievement of the Sixth Development Goal as it hinders the provision of adequate infrastructure and disrupts political instability, widespread corruption, multiple ethnic conflicts, climate change and other man-made factors.

Conflict also prevents the sixth development goal from being achieved. In Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Somalia and Sudan, drinking water and sanitation facilities were badly damaged as a result of the war. The displacement has also put a lot of strain on the infrastructure of the host countries, which are already weak and have limited resources.

Water pollution is a major threat in Arab countries with scarce water resources, and this threat is exacerbated by unsustainable urban projects, population growth and climate change. Water scarcity is forcing many countries to resort to unconventional water resources, such as seawater desalination, with the associated high costs and significant environmental impacts. Increasing demand in the Gulf states has led to overexploitation of aquifers.

Other issues hampering progress towards the Sixth Development Goal include weak water management, lack of integrated water management, failure to develop programs integrating water, sanitation and hygiene to ensure public health, lack of public participation in the water sector and limited political and financial commitment.

The AFED report concludes that achieving the Sixth Development Goal is not just a common good, but rather a milestone toward developing structures and ecosystems to better respond to health and development needs. It calls on Arab countries to achieve these goals by 2030 through strategic initiatives, strengthening the decision-making mechanism, use of performance indicators, safeguarding material and human resources, seeking regional cooperation, improving water security and better monitoring thereof.

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