World Bank: Improve water and sanitation access for Latin American kids

A boy cools off with water in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which has some of Latin America's best access to water and sanitation. (Credit: Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires/flickr)

If Latin America is to gain more ground on the fight against poverty, children need better access to basic resources like running water and sanitation, according to newly released data from the World Bank.

The World Bank’s 2016 Human Opportunity Index (HOI): Seeking Opportunities for All, measures children’s access to necessary services such as education, water and sanitation, electricity and internet. The report had some good news about Latin America’s progress on fighting poverty: the percentage of people living in extreme poverty dropped dramatically between 2000 and 2014 (25.5 percent to 10.8 percent). The region also now boasts over 90 percent coverage in access to electricity and school enrollment.

But the analysis also found that the poverty rate has since been declining at a much slower pace since 2012 as a result of the economic slowdown, and some countries in Latin America are still lacking access to internet, safe drinking water and sanitation. Thirty million Latin Americans today don’t have easy access to clean water, according to the report, even though the region is home to 31 percent of world’s freshwater resources.

A girl drinks from a newly-installed drinking fountain at a primary school in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2013. (Credit: German Tenorio/flickr)

A girl drinks from a newly installed drinking fountain at a primary school in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2013. (Credit: German Tenorio/flickr)

Access varies dramatically among countries; Argentina and Uruguay have the best access to water and sanitation, for example, while the violence-riddled country of El Salvador has the worst in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

There are also enormous discrepancies between rural communities and urban areas, since cities have seen more rapid improvements in infrastructure for water and sanitation services. Across Latin America, some 100 million people still lack access to any sanitation, with rural access at just 60 percent. According to the report, rates of access range from near universal coverage to less than a fifth within individual countries.

According to Oscar Calvo-Gonzalez, author of the report and World Bank practice manager for poverty and equity in Latin America and the Caribbean, this type of disadvantage can translate into setbacks for children – and, in turn, the fight against poverty – across the region.

“Unequal access to essential services can hinder the development and well-being of children, which ultimately limits their productivity in adult life and affects the region’s potential to boost growth and further reduce poverty in the long term,” said Calvo-Gonzalez in a press release. “Unfortunately, having parents with low education and income, as well as living in rural areas, remain important barriers for access to opportunities and economic mobility from one generation to the next.”

Experts say many Latin American countries will need to invest in distribution systems and other infrastructure to be able to allocate water across sectors to spur economic development, and to be able to provide improved sanitation in remote or rural areas. These and other issues are being addressed at this week’s Habitat III summit, a U.N. conference taking place in Quito, Ecuador, to focus on equitable urban development.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. You can contact her at lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.