In many developing regions, government programs are designed to improve the lives of urban through housing infrastructure and adequate living spaces, improved water and sanitation, and finance programs. However, for these programs to succeed, they often must be implemented and complemented with the NGO-led programs, including micro-credit, self-help, education and employment. Habitat for Humanity International is one such NGO and has been supporting urban dwellers through micro schemes, particularly for improved water and sanitation. As a result, urban dwellers have gained access to improved water and sanitation as well as to durable and adequate housing. This public-civil society partnership has helped thousands of people escape poverty, disease and illiteracy, and lead healthier lives.

Improving the lives of slum dwellers by providing adequate housing, including access to WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), is one of the most efficient ways to achieve all of the Millennium Development Goals related to poverty, hunger, universal primary education, gender equality, empowering women, child mortality, maternal health, HIV/AIDS, malaria problems. Improved housing conditions and provision of water and sanitation will not only save lives among the very poor, but also support progress in education and health. UN-HABITAT promotes access to improved water (defined as water that is sufficient, affordable and can be obtained without extreme effort) and access to improved sanitation facilities (a private toilet, or a public one shared with a reasonable number of people) as part of adequate shelter.

The highest deficits in sanitation are in urban areas where, due to population density, disease is likely to spread most easily, and poor housing conditions, lack of access to improved WASH and poor management of solid waste pose grave environmental health hazards. According to the Joint Monitoring Program Thematic Report on Drinking Water of UNICEF and WHO [1], the number of rural dwellers with unmet sanitation needs is decreasing, while the needs in urban slums is increasing. Looking purely at number of people with access to improved sanitation, the years from 1990 through 2004 saw an increase of almost 40% with access to improved sanitation. But increased access to WASH is not keeping pace with growth in population and the WASH deficit in urban areas is growing. Current projections anticipate a 50% increase in the number of urban dwellers without access to improved sanitation between 1990 and 2015, while the number of unserved rural dwellers will decrease by about 25%.

The negative health impact of lack of access to WASH cannot be understated. Child mortality rates remain high due to diarrheal diseases and many contagious infections such as cholera, which is linked to overcrowding. Children in slums are exposed to contaminated water and soil due to open defecation, and to conditions where parasite-carrying insects breed. For example, diarrhea causes nearly 1.3 million deaths of year among children under five years old.

Habitat for Humanity International’s focus on improved water and sanitation for low-income families recognizes the need for multiple interventions, not only related to securing a durable and safe place to live, but also to accessing safe water and improved sanitation in order to improve health outcomes and life conditions, including for slum dwellers. In response to local need, Habitat for Humanity Ethiopia benefitted 1,820 families in 2013 alone by working with communities to install public water points, build shared latrines and provide hygiene education. As a result of these WASH programs, the incidence of diarrhea in children has significantly decreased. This improvement, like many others, enjoys economies of scale, whereby productive activities in areas of population density stimulate growth and reduce the costs of production, including the delivery of collective basic services such as piped water, sewers and drains, as well as many other public services.

So while population density in cities poses dangerous problems, it also provides opportunities to solve these problems as necessities can be delivered more quickly and efficiently than in rural areas. Easier access to the knowledge, skills, and financing for WASH, combined with a smart business model, can guarantee the improved water and sanitation. A proper business model requires a holistic approach addressing technology, financing, and other key factors across the entire sanitation value chain. Local market actors are critical to establishing sustainable supply chains, as is greater coordination among government, local entrepreneurs, the construction sector, the financial sector, and service providers. Habitat for Humanity International promotes business models that address gaps that government does not reach. As people across the globe celebrate World Water Day on March 22, Habitat joins them by continuing to explore options to work with government, private sector actors and public development partners to improve WASH and move toward a planet where everyone has a decent place to live.

Sources:[1] Drinking Water Equity, Safety and Sustainability: Thematic report on drinking water 2011

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