Students receiving hygiene education at Ta Ngi Primary School in Pursat, Cambodia. PIC COURTESY OF WATERAID

EARLIER this month, a report hit my desk that painted a very bleak picture of the state of the world’s health, and for a moment, I was overwhelmed by just how much work there was left to do.

Then, I regrouped and began making plans.

The “Global Nutrition” report revealed that despite all of the hard work that’s gone into improving the world’s health, malnutrition remains a serious problem in almost every nation in the world.

Some 815 million people go to bed hungry — almost 40 million more than in 2015.

And, one in five preschool-age children are under-developed or stunted because of malnourishment in the first 1,000 days of their life — that’s 155 million children whose brains and bodies are damaged forever.

In some parts of the world, the situation is even more dire.

Almost half of India’s youngest children are stunted — the life chances of half of a generation damaged even before their first day at school.

And, with 613 million women of child-bearing age worldwide suffering from anaemia, one of the largest causes of birth complications, the cycle of malnutrition seems doomed to repeat itself.

The frustrating truth is that despite all our best efforts, we are losing the war against malnutrition.

And, the reason is very simple: we’re fighting the wrong enemy.

Strange as it sounds, giving people more, or even better food isn’t always enough to keep them well nourished.

That’s because up to half of the malnutrition faced by the world’s undernourished people isn’t so just because they lack food.

It’s because they suffer from chronic infections and illnesses, from dirty water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene.

One-third of the world’s population doesn’t have access to
a decent private toilet, and another 844 million are without clean water, and so, diarrhoeal diseases like cholera spread quickly.

Such diseases are responsible for the deaths of 800 children every single day.

However, chronic diarrhoea, worm infestations and other infections can also prevent the
absorption of nutrients from food.

Even a full belly cannot protect one from malnutrition if one’s body can’t absorb the nutrients it’s given.

That’s why the world needs to rethink its approach to malnutrition because the status quo just isn’t going to get the job done.

If we want to ensure children’s futures aren’t damaged before their lives have even really begun, then governments, policymakers and donors need to stop thinking of malnutrition as something that can be stopped with food alone, and start making clean water and toilets a priority.

Through WaterAid’s work, we can identify progress in embracing this way of thinking.

As the report highlights, in Cambodia, where stunting affects one in three of its youngest residents, the government and their partners are improving access to clean water and toilets and treating water, sanitation and hygiene, nutrition, development and health as inter-related challenges, not as completely separate issues handled by different departments.

If we are to have any chance of meeting the global goal to end malnutrition by 2030, and to reach everyone, everywhere with clean water and decent toilets, then others need to adopt this approach, and bolster it with political leadership and funding.

Malnutrition is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today, but it is also an opportunity to do better.

Addressing malnutrition while serving those who are hardest to reach with clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene would be among the greatest advancements in modern history.

Economists estimate that for every £1 (RM5.50) spent on improved water and sanitation, £4 (RM22) results in improved productivity; for every £1 spent on improved nutrition, £16 of economic gains result.

The ripple effects of achieving both would lead to better health and education, and increased prosperity for millions. IPS

Tim Wainwright is the chief executive officer of WaterAid

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