Thousands are gathering this week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to attend Rio+20—the United Nations’ global conference on sustainable development. It is 20 years on from the original Earth Summit. This time, it is estimated that 130 heads of state and government will participate, as well as 50,000 business leaders, mayors, activists and investors.
There is much discussion on what sustainable development means. For Unicef, one of the most important aspects is intergenerational responsibility—the collective commitment to ensure a safer, cleaner, healthier and more inclusive world for today’s children and their children. A sustainable future requires that children have the opportunity to grow up healthy, well-educated and protected from violence, having access to clean water, clean air and food. In the Philippines, we can celebrate that 20 years on from Rio, children are less likely to die and more likely to have access to clean water than 20 years ago. The infant mortality rate has dropped significantly from 57 deaths per thousand live births in 1990 to 25 in 2008, and access to clean water has increased from 85 percent in 1991 to 92 percent in 2010.
At the same time, a sustainable world must also mean a more equitable world, to safeguard and empower the most vulnerable. There is growing evidence that investing in the health, education and protection of a society’s most disadvantaged citizens is more likely to lead to sustained growth and stability that benefits all.
In the Philippines, a recent Asian Development Bank report stated that the country is one of those most at risk of multiple impacts from climate change, and in 2011 the country was declared the most disaster prone in the world. Globally, WHO estimates that climate change is already responsible for approximately 150,000 additional deaths every year. It is clear that those most affected by the impacts of climate change are those least likely to have caused it. Children feature highly in those figures.
One of the ways Unicef is trying to encourage sustainable development and adaptation to climate change is through investment in sanitation and hygiene programs. In order to target the most disadvantaged such as those in remote areas or those from minority groups, we must look beyond the national averages. For sanitation, the national figure for those with access to a sanitary toilet in the Philippines is 74 percent. But if we take some of the poorest provinces such as Masbate, coverage is still as low as 31 percent. Poor water quality combined with inadequate sanitation has a direct impact on a child’s health and development, increasing rates of death and sickness from diarrhea and pneumonia which are among the top three causes of death amongst children under the age of five in the Philippines. Low-cost and high-impact interventions including sanitation, hand washing with soap, and household water treatment can reduce diarrhea by as much as 48 percent.
Our experiences with water, sanitation and hygiene programs in the Philippines and globally have shown that children can be effective agents of change in their communities. For example, in more than 7,000 elementary schools in the Philippines, children are championing the behavior of regular washing of hands with soap. Thanks to the Department of Education and local government, nongovernment and private sector partners, children are provided with the basics of clean water and soap, and together with many enthusiastic teachers, they take the program forward themselves, encouraging their classmates to participate in group hand washing sessions. There have been reports of substantial improvement in attendance rates due to less sickness as a result of this simple intervention.
Sanitation is the bigger challenge in the country, especially in the far-flung barangays where piped water is also in short supply. Nevertheless, even here there is good news to tell. In areas that are prone to the impact of natural disasters, Unicef’s NGO and local government partners are building in strategies to ensure that poor sanitation does not become a “double disaster” in the event of storms and flooding. And children and young people are leading the way again, encouraging family and community elders that it is worthwhile investing in sanitation and hygiene, for the health and wellbeing of the whole barangay.
The Rio+20 conference will serve as an opportunity to look out and listen to the often unheard voices of children and young people. They are agents of change who have an important role to play in making sustainable development for future generations a reality.
Tomoo Hozumi is the representative of Unicef in the Philippines. All data cited are from the Department of Health’s 2010 National Demographic and Health Survey, Unicef-WHO Joint Monitoring Programme 2012, and ADB’s Addressing Climate Change and Migration in Asia and the Pacific, 2012.