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Clean water and sanitation are human rights. Here are the most important leaps we’ve made towards those goals.

Clean water and sanitation are human rights. Here are the most important leaps we’ve made towards those goals.
Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

This article was produced in partnership with the United Nations to launch the biggest-ever global conversation on the role of cooperation in building the future we want.

Water is life. It grows the plants we eat, it keeps animals alive, and it hydrates us. If we go three days without it, we die. And yet, all around the world, people still lack access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, or basic hand-washing facilities in their homes.

Without access to these things, families can become locked in poverty. Hunger and malnutrition are made worse without clean water, and girls are kept out of school as they collect drinking water miles from home, which worsens gender equality. Inadequate sanitation contaminates water supplies, leading to pollution, damaged ecosystems, and disease. Millions of people die every year from preventable diseases because of unclean water; around 297,000 of those deaths are children under five. Worse, climate change is bringing more frequent droughts and floods — threatening to further compound water security threats.

That's why the United Nations has made one of its Sustainable Development Goals to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation by 2030. So far, there is good news: the proportion of people using safely managed drinking water increased from 61% in 2000 to 71% by 2017. In that same time period, the percentage of people with access to safely managed sanitation increased from 28% to 45%.

Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done and the road ahead won't be easy. But if history teaches us anything, it shows us that we are capable of making some pretty big leaps forward when we seek to improve people's lives. Over the past two centuries, we've come a long way in our understanding of disease, sanitation, and hygiene; and have taken pretty big steps to help improve access to clean drinking water and sanitation.

Here are just a few of those big leaps:

Henry Hering/Wikimedia commons

1854 - During the Crimean war, Florence Nightingale, an English nurse, implemented a number of practices to improve hygiene, such as hand washing, when she realized more soldiers were dying from typhoid, typhus, dysentery, and cholera than battle wounds.

1902 - Belgium became the first country to implement continuous chlorination at Middelkerke to help kill bacteria in drinking water.

1914 - Federal regulation of drinking water began in the United States with the U.S. Public Health Service.

1974 - The Safe Drinking Water Act was enacted to ensure the quality of drinking water across the United States by authorizing the EPA to set national standards to protect against the health effects of contaminants.

USEPA Environmental-Protection-Agency/Flickr

1989 - In November, the Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly mentioned water, environmental sanitation, and hygiene in Article 24(2).

2010 - The United National General Assembly recognized access to water and sanitation as a human right with Resolution 64/292. It also acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential for realizing all other human rights. This affirmed that the rights to water and sanitation are part of international law and legally binding on countries.

2015 - The UN General Assembly explicitly recognized the right to sanitation as its own distinct human right.

Looking Ahead

As part of celebrating its 75th anniversary, the UN is redoubling its commitment to reach all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including access to clean water and sanitation. By working to keep governments accountable and investing in water research, this ambitious goal is possible.

You can help by getting involved in water or sanitation campaigns. You can also join the global conversation about the role of international cooperation in building the future by taking the 1-minute UN75 survey.

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