Water of Life

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24 May 19 - Source: Myanmar TImes - Thingyan, the well-known and loved festival to celebrate the Burmese New Year, consists of dousing fellow celebrators with water to cleanse them of the bad deeds of the previous year in order to make a fresh start.

Whilst living in temperatures consistently over 30 degrees makes the thought of getting doused in water very tempting, perhaps we should think twice before grabbing a bucket during the tidal wave of the following New Year's celebrations.

According to a previous article in the Myanmar Times, a member of Mandalay City Development Committee reported in 2016 that the average amount of water used during the festival period was approximately 10 million gallons each day.

That is roughly equivalent to 45.5 million litres, or over 18 Olympic swimming pools! In an age where many still lack access to clean and affordable water, can we still rejoice in the Thingyan festivities whilst being mindful of the amount of water used?

In 2018, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 844 million people lacked access to even a basic drinking-water service and at least 2 billion people used a water source contaminated with feces.Furthermore, there were still over 900 million people worldwide who did not have access to a basic sanitation service. Water is not only important for drinking, but is essential in maintaining good levels of sanitation and hygiene and essential for industry, healthcare and food production. Contaminated or dirty drinking water is a fundamental cause of diarrhoeal disease, which is a significant contributor to the high childhood mortality rates across many Asian countries. Water-borne diseases include cholera, diarrhoeal disease, parasites, typhoid and hepatitis. Indeed, the WHO states that diarrhoea alone is responsible for 4 percent of all deaths. Why is diarrhoeal disease so deadly? It can quickly lead to dehydration and malnutrition and can spread like wildfire through groups living close proximity. But for many who have to collect water, there are dangers even before they reach the water source, in addition to numerous disadvantages and risks to health.

Often the journey just to reach the water source is long and arduous. Time spent travelling detracts from time that could be spent working and making an income. For many, the journey can actually be life-threatening, especially during heavy rain where drowning is a poses a real threat. Numerous children help in collecting water for the family, which equates to time away from school and education. The children who are lucky enough to attend school, may find that their school does not have adequate toilet facilities which are clean, private and with hand-washing facilities. Young girls face yet a further barrier still - in many countries there is still a significant social stigma attached to menstruation. Coupled with restricted access to sanitary products and inadequate toilet facilities at school this translates into extra time away from school each month. To compound this, within a household, water is mostly collected by women and girls, further disadvantaging females and widening the gender inequality.

Prevention of waterborne diseases is key and good hand hygiene is essential. This is, of course, reliant on access to enough clean water for not only personal hygiene, but also for cooking and cleaning. Careful food storage, preparation and cooking are also important. For those of us who shop in supermarkets, eat in nice restaurants and can easily afford soap, this is no big task. For those living in poverty, the principles of good hygiene may be unattainable without assistance and thus action from the government is needed in combination with a strong public health campaign.

Let us in Myanmar learn lessons from Cyclone Nargis and the disaster response that followed; there must be robust plans that can be quickly actioned, should another disaster strike. Early warning systems should be in place, more so now than ever before as we see more extreme weather events in conjunction with climate change. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) supports such initiatives and works with governments to develop plans for disaster risk management and preparedness plans. Despite their efforts to support and strengthen systems around the globe, the UNISDR reports that "over 80 percent of the world's 48 least developed countries and many small island developing territories and states have only a basic early warning system". These systems have been proven to save lives and we must take heed so that we do not see the desolation of Nargis replicated once more.

Lack of easy access to clean water represents so much more than simply sanitation and hygiene. Better access to clean water sanitation and hygiene means better health outcomes, better education and less gender inequality. Access to clean water is a basic human right that many are still lacking - So next year, perhaps we should think back to the Thingyan of the past, where scented water was sprinkled over people. The celebration is an important part of the history and culture of Myanmar, but let us consider how we can be mindful of the use of water, which for many is still such a precious resource.

Dr Bethany Moos is a doctor from Oxford in the UK and is currently based in Yangon as an Improving Global Health Fellow.


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