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Representative Darin LaHood

Representing the 18th District of Illinois

LaHood Op-ed: 3 billion people can't wash their hands in COVID-19 pandemic. Here's how we plan to help.

September 17, 2020
Press Release
If families had access to adequate water and soap for hand washing, a remarkable range of diseases would be better contained, if not prevented.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Darin LaHood (IL-18) authored an op-ed this week in USA Today announcing the creation of the bipartisan Congressional International Water and Sanitation Caucus. The Caucus also held a virtual kick-off event that can be viewed here.

Originally published by USA Today: 3 billion people can't wash their hands in COVID-19 pandemic. Here's how we plan to help.
By Congressmen Darin LaHood (R-IL) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR)

Sometimes it’s hardest to shake the simplest story. Cristian, a 9-year-old boy, was diagnosed with a neglected tropical disease, a grouping of 20 infections that tend to attack the poorest communities around the world where access to safe water and basic sanitation are in dangerous short supply.

Cristian’s particular NTD, which caused an eye infection, was easily treatable with a steady routine of hand and face washing, except that’s a luxury for a family living outside the capital of Honduras where contaminated water is a gateway to disease.

Because his family did not have access to clean water, Cristian suffered for two years as his eye infection grew into a tumor that covered part of his face. Only 11 years old, he died of complications from a preventable and treatable disease.

If families simply had access to adequate water and soap for hand washing, a remarkable range of diseases — from cholera, typhoid, sepsis, malaria, HIV/AIDS, Ebola and now COVID-19 — would be better contained, if not prevented altogether.

Not only are 3 billion people unable to effectively wash their hands at home as COVID-19 travels the globe, 2 billion do not have the safety and dignity of a basic toilet, 785 million still don’t have clean drinking water, and at least 2 billion people use faecally contaminated drinking water sources.

The pervasive unavailability of water, sanitation and hygiene (called WASH) has massive global health impact. Even health care workers cannot adequately wash their hands; 45% of health care facilities in low-resource settings lack basic water services at points of care and sanitation does not fare much better.

These are among many reasons why we are launching the bipartisan Congressional International Water and Sanitation Caucus. While clean water has always received strong support on Capitol Hill, and 17 federal agencies have a hand in managing and protecting international water resources and access to WASH, we need stronger coordination and prioritization.

Water used as a weapon

Not only is this a matter of global health, it’s also a matter of global security. Terrorist groups use water to manipulate populations, from Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram to ISIS, which launched nearly 20 attacks against Syrian and Iraqi water infrastructure, and gained dangerous leverage over local governments and populations by cutting off water to Christian, Kurdish and Muslim minorities.

Yet water can also bring about stability. “Two countries engaged in active water cooperation” will “not go to war, for any reason," according to extensive analysis of 146 countries that border freshwater resources.

Access to WASH is also foundational for a healthy U.S. economy; 80% of the world’s purchasing power lies outside the U.S. They are consumers for American agriculture, goods and services.

Increasing access to WASH adds more than $60 billion to the world economy annually (a return of $4.30 for every one dollar invested) and helps move foreign assistance beneficiaries from aid to trade. Conversely, poor sanitation and water supply result in economic losses estimated at $260 billion annually in developing countries, or 1.5% of GDP.

Children are at high risk

From a humanitarian standpoint, the lack of WASH harms children in particular, contributing to miscarriages and stillbirths, premature births and low birth weights.

Every year, 17 million women must give birth in health care facilities without WASH. More than 1 billion children, like Cristian, are affected by NTDs. 

Half of all malnutrition is due to preventable diarrheal diseases caused by contaminated water, not the lack of food, stealing nearly 300,000 lives under age 5 every year.

Simply hand washing with soap can reduce diarrheal episodes by 45%; instead, chronically sick children fall behind in school. Girls drop out when they do not have needed sanitation facilities, setting some up for child marriage and trafficking.

In addition to 698 million school children (37% of schools) lacking basic latrines, 818 million children (44% of schools) lack hand washing facilities as they head back to classrooms during this pandemic. 

Consider this sobering fact: In the next decade, 2.9 billion people in 48 countries will face water shortages.

The U.S. government spends less than one one-hundredth of a percent of the federal budget on global WASH. This crucial, cost-effective investment has been overlooked far too long; it needs to be a cornerstone of U.S. development, diplomacy and defense. Our allies around the world need to step up too. And that’s what our new caucus is ready to accomplish.

Prioritizing clean water, sanitation and hygiene will help get ahead of the next drought before it becomes a famine, the next virus before it becomes a pandemic, and the next scuffle before it becomes a conflict. This is how we build more resilient and economically thriving communities and families everywhere.