Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 March 2012



8:29 pm

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In Australia, access to safe drinking water and to hygienic sanitation is pretty much a given. We do have the odd problem, as we have had in Queensland during the past 12 months, where, because of floods or cyclones, a water treatment facility or a sewerage treatment facility is offline for a few days. If there is any sort of major breakdown in the delivery of safe water, as there was in Sydney about 15 years ago, then it is a major incident, much inquired into, and with lessons learnt it never happens again. This makes us a very lucky country because more than one billion people worldwide do not have the same access that we do to safe water or hygienic sanitation.

I would like to speak tonight about the fact that we celebrated World Plumbing Day last Friday and we have World Water Day coming up on 22 March. Both of these days have obviously a strong connection with the development and improvement of water supplies and sanitation across the world. Having a safe and abundant supply of drinking water is a concern for all of us. In fact, the World Plumbing Council, who were responsible in the main for the organisation of World Plumbing Day, have pointed out in a case study that it is quite likely that the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong would not have happened if the correct plumbing procedures had been followed. If the right products had been specified, if the right products had been installed and if, at inspection, it had been found that the right products had been installed, then the problems in the Amoy Gardens plumbing and ventilation systems that led to the infectious agent of SARS being spread throughout the building may not have occurred. That is one of the strongest arguments I have heard yet for making sure that we remember how important plumbers, plumbing and good regulation of that industry is to ensuring safe water and safe sanitation.

The United Nations have declared the decade 2005-2015 the International Decade for Action 'Water for Life'. They make the point that preventable diseases related to water and sanitation kill 3.1 million people a year throughout the world, and most of them are children under five years old. Of those 3.1 million, 1.6 million people die every year of diarrhoeal diseases associated with a lack of safe drinking water or adequate sanitation. Sustainable health, particularly for children, is not possible without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation facilities. This is something we need to keep in mind when we look at many of the programs that we currently have to assist with health in developing countries. It is quite sobering to acknowledge that there are more people killed every year from diseases associated with a lack of safe drinking water than from malaria and AIDS combined.

We can have every preventative health program in the world that we like, but without safe drinking water and its companion of adequate sanitation, it does not matter how good our prevention, immunisation and vaccination programs are, we will fail if we cannot provide good safe drinking water and adequate sanitation. There is a joint monitoring program being undertaken by UNICEF and the World Health Organisation looking at how well we meet the Millennium Development Goals in respect of drinking water. A report on this came out earlier this month, and it is cheering in the sense that the Millennium Development Goal for drinking water has been reached. Improved drinking water sources are now used by 89 per cent of the global population. However, that still leaves 780 million people who do not have improved drinking water sources and there are huge disparities between urban and rural areas, between rich and poor and between regions. Over two billion people, though, have gained access to improved water services between 1990 and 2010. The estimated population without improved water sources is now at 11 per cent—some people have said, 'only 11 per cent'—but even 11 per cent without safe drinking water is too high a figure. The most dramatic improvement has happened in eastern Asia, where in 1990 68 per cent had access to safe drinking water but in 2010 91 per cent had access safe drinking water.

Unfortunately, in our own region of Oceania, progress has been very slow. In fact, we have gone backwards: 54 per cent of people had access in 2010, but in 1990 it was 55 per cent. It is also interesting to note the disparity between urban and rural areas. Eight out of 10 people living in urban areas have piped water connections on their premises, as the vast majority of Australians would experience. In rural areas this comes back to three out of 10 people with piped water. In fact, one in 10 people in the poorest 50 countries in the world use surface water for drinking and household use. That increases to 14 per cent in rural areas, who have only surface water to use. When you think about the fact that communities are using their surface water for drinking and other hygiene, health and cooking purposes, it becomes very clear how critically important adequate sanitation is at the same time and how the two must be achieved together, not seen as separate or less popular ways of assisting health. I think we need to focus on the fact that the sanitation challenge is quite separate and largely unmet in terms of achieving the target that was set by the Millennium Development Goals for 2015.

There has been some progress: 1.8 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation since 1990, and 63 per cent of the global population now use improved sanitation facilities. However, with the progress we are currently making, we will only get to 67 per cent of the world having improved sanitation by 2015. It will take us till 2026 to get 75 per cent, which is the target that had been set. It is estimated that 2½ billion people in rural areas in the world are without improved sanitation. In the sub-Saharan area 45 per cent of the population have to use shared or unimproved facilities—what are sometimes called drop toilets—and for an estimated 25 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa open defecation is their only option.

One-third of the 2½ billion people who do not have good sanitation live in India. Again, in our part of the world, in Oceania, the Pacific area, progress is slow—or, I should say, glacial. In 1990, 55 per cent of people in Oceania had access to improved sanitation. It was still 55 per cent 20 years later, in 2010. According to the UN figures, open defecation is still practised by 1.1 billion people worldwide. That is 15 per cent of the global population. Open defecation is defined as defecation in fields, forests, bushes, bodies of water or other open spaces. That is a serious issue that we must address.