Lack of Water leads to Infant and Child Mortality in sub-Saharan Africa

Infant mortality! Child mortality! Two expressions interchangeably used to talk about the death of children. But are they the same? Yes they are the same as they both describe mortality of little children. And no, they are not the same, as ‘infant mortality refers to the death of children younger than one year; and child mortality, is the death of children younger than five.

While data shows that the global mortality rate of boys children are more than that of girl children, assuming that it could be due the strong immune system of the female children, and because there are high number of male children born in the world in comparison to girls. While the mortality due to diseases does not choose between the two sexes of boys and girls, culture and traditions in some developing countries choose baby girls to be killed considering them to be an economic burden. India for example is a country known for aborting girls, or killing female infants soon after they are born.

The reasons for child mortality are mainly malnutrition, poverty, hygiene conditions, water and sanitation, diseases and ill health conditions. Countries with high child mortality rates are those from the developing or under-developed regions of Africa. This in return explains that the developed countries which has access to clean water, inclusive health care, medications, vaccinations, healthy hygiene facilities, and nutrition see the low rates of child mortality in the world.

Lamya [not her real name] is a 36 years old mother of two, who lives in the rural of Sudan. Her husband is a labourer whose earnings are insufficient to fulfil the family’s needs. Before, Lamya too worked in the fields. But after losing her two infants repeatedly in the past years, she became depressed mentally and feeble physically. She is also ill suffering from a weak heart condition after a severe attack of pneumonia. “If only we had better health facilities here I wouldn’t have lost my babies. They both were only a month or so old when they left me. It’s not just the hospitals; they say I lost my babies because of the unclean water and lack of food. Yeah, look at us here; we all know it is filthy, but what more could poor people like afford to have; this is all God has given us” spoke Lamya lifting her hands towards the sky, to indicate where God was. “I am also ill now; we can’t afford medication; I am holding my breath in my hands living for the sake of my family – for my other two children.”

In Africa, the Sub Saharan Africa stands the highest chances of risk of deaths during the first month of a baby life. The region sees 38% of the world’s neonatal deaths, which is considered the highest for a region, with the death rates 34 deaths per 100 live births in the year 2011. Though this has changed by today with the region experiencing reduction on same, the problem still exists, where the region loses 1 in 9 children before the age of five, which is accounted as more than 16 times of the average number for developed countries.

Even if progressions are seen in child and infant mortality in the sub-Saharan region, UNICEF data reveals that the deaths of new-born and infants have not decreased as when compared to child deaths aged between one and five. In 2016, 7000 new-born died every day in the world. This was an increase from 41% in 2000 to 46% in 2016 of all child deaths.

Causes of these deaths are premature births, child labour complications, infections, tetanus, pneumonia, diarrhea, which are preventable if it is to be afforded by the poor people living in the less developing regions like Africa. These deaths occur in families who live under poverty line who are marginalized, conflict affected, or who do have a healthy environment with access to clean water, hygiene and sanitation facilities. Research shows that child mortality numbers are double amongst children in the poorest and unhealthiest environments, than those who have access to food, water, sanitation and health. And hence the majority of the deaths occur in two regions: sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.Water is central to the well-being of people and the planet; we must work together to protect and carefully manage this fragile, finite resource.” [United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; UN, International Year of Water Cooperation, 2013].

Nearly 783 million of people in the world today have limitations in getting access to safe drinking water [WHO 2015]; and it is worse when considering the sanitation, where 2.5 billion lack improved sanitation facilities. And out of this given global population, over 40% live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa is the second-driest continent on earth. With 66% of its ground being dry/semi – dry, 300 of the 800 million in sub-Saharan Africa live in a land that suffers water inadequacy. Therefore water – borne diseases are high in the region, 115 people dying every hour which relates to shortage of water and/or polluted water. This lack of water also creates unclean sanitation and negative hygiene facilities. Studies have clarified water being one of the primary causes for high rates of infant and child mortality in the region. Uncovered seepage, improper solid and waste water disposal cause diseases which makes women and children more vulnerable. Women here become very vulnerable both directly and indirectly. Even when they are not directly affected at times by these diseases, it is a huge pain and suffering for them to lose their child, and it is even harder on them and their financial ability, when the child is ill. In whichever way, women suffer most, as it is in almost every scenario that happens in this world.

As quarter of the sub-Saharan Africans fetches water from long distances for their household purposes, the women and girls who attend to this chore, multiple difficulties which include negative physical conditions, extra work load added to their reproductive roles, sexual abuse on deserted road paths, and complication during child birth that leads to maternal, infant / child mortality.

I lost everything, when my daughter lost her purity” laments Zarifa [not her real name], whose 17 year old daughter Zina [not her real name] was sexually harassed in some instances and then raped by an old man when she walked to fetch water from far. Zina is the eldest in the family of four girls and a boy, and had to ease her mother’s burdens by attending to some household chores. The cultural practices of this village in Sudan continued to emphasize on the traditional gender roles. Hence, Zina’s father, and her 15 year old brother were never expected to carry water, as this task was considered as a ‘woman’s job’, and men fetching water was a disgrace on them and the family. But today this family is facing humiliation and pain to a greater extent. “It is my fault; I had never thought that there was danger behind carrying water. Of course I knew it was quite a long distance, but I never bothered to adhere to my wife. Now she does not speak to me; she blames me all the time for the plight of our daughter” mentioned Zina’s father Zarouq [not his real name].

Studies clarify that lack of improved water and sanitation facilities is a one of the primary causes for high rates of infant and child mortality in the sub-Saharan region. Uncovered seepage, improper solid and waste water disposal cause diseases which makes women and children more vulnerable. Women here become vulnerable both directly and indirectly. Even when they are not directly affected at times by these diseases, it is a huge pain and suffering for them to lose their child, and it is even harder on them and their financial ability, when the child is ill. In whichever way, women suffer most, as it is in almost every scenario that happens in this world.

Women in sub- Saharan Africa are seen toiling in the fields to earn an income to support their families. Women’s workload includes variety of different tasks, which is an overload on their shoulders. This tends to make women weak and sick. Lack of financial and material resources, lead to poverty and poor living conditions. Malnutrition of women and children is a crucial issue in this region.

The sub-Saharan Africa that is facing huge number of deaths is also immensely growing in terms of population. This rise in population demands more water, while it is also contributing to the degradation of water resources in the region. UN estimates that the population here will grow to 1,245 million by 2025 and to 2,069 million by 2050. And among developing regions, sub-Saharan Africa is likely to have the highest dominance of urban slums which is anticipated to double to around 400 million by 2020. This unplanned quick growth in the urban areas is increasing risks of natural hazards due to the ill-use of natural resources; and increase in health hazards due to contaminated water, and poor sanitation.

Being the poorest and the least developed region in the world, sub-Saharan Africa’s half population live on less than a dollar a day, with its two thirds of its countries ranking among the lowest in the Human Development Index. Hence this makes it even worse to address the issues of water, sanitation, health, and in particular child and infant mortality.

Several researches have stated that having access to clean water without a lack, will improve health of women and children, which would create a reduction in infant and in child mortality. A recent study shows that access to improved water and sanitation can reduce infant/child mortality by approximately 20%, and each year prevent about 2.2 million deaths in children aged under five years old from low-income and middle-income developing countries.

Hiba Oduho  |  Sudan