WaterAid supporter George Rosenfeld is one of 15 UK 15-year-olds who launched the action/2015 movement to end extreme poverty.

“How can we make sure decision-makers don’t just talk about ‘popular’ development issues and ignore equally important issues that aren’t as nice to talk about, such as toilets?” This is the question I posed to Ed Miliband and Shadow International Development Secretary Mary Creagh when I met them at the action/2015 launch in January.

So why do I feel so strongly about such an unpopular topic? It’s simple really – along with clean water and good hygiene, toilets save lives. I’ve seen it for myself. In 2013, I visited Zambia with WaterAid.

Seeing the water that people drink in the rural area that we visited was shocking. Their water source was a hole in the ground – there were algae on its surface and insects buzzed around. Not only was it filthy but it wasn’t easy to access either. Holes have to be regularly re-dug as they dry up, and are often far from the village. I tried to carry one of the water cans used by the women and children (it’s usually them who collect water) and found it almost impossible. What made it even more upsetting is the people understand the impact of drinking this water – they know it makes them and their children sick, but they don’t have any other choice.

What’s worse, this water is also contaminated by sewage – that’s because the people in the village go to the toilet in the bushes, again because they simply have no alternative. As I mentioned earlier, it’s toilets that are the really overlooked issue. The target on sanitation is the most off-track of all the Millennium Development Goal targets agreed by world governments in 2000.

Nowhere were the devastating impacts of a lack of water and toilets more evident than in the local hospital. Over 60% of the illnesses that the hospital treats are due to dirty water and poor sanitation – in other words, easily preventable. More recently I’ve been shocked to hear of people being infected with Ebola when they were actually in hospital with a relatively minor injury. Having seen for myself how difficult it is to keep a hospital hygienic without clean water and safe sanitation, it’s easy to imagine how a disease like Ebola could get out of control.

As well as the impact on health, I also saw the effects on education. We visited a school with a rainwater harvesting system and new latrine blocks – the difference between the classrooms there and a school without was incredible. Students were brighter, more energetic. Going to the toilet wasn’t scary as it had been before. Children also told us that simply not having to spend so much time fetching water meant they were able to spend more time in the classroom learning instead – I have no doubt their futures will be much brighter as a result. But one of the saddest moments of the trip was when I met a boy called Santos. While other children discussed their hopes and aspirations, he told me he wouldn’t be able to achieve his dream to be a medic because the water and toilets had come when he was 16, so he had already missed too much school.

In just my lifetime the world has, in many ways, changed for the better. Half a billion people are no longer living in extreme poverty, and over a billion more people have access to safe drinking water. But we have such a long way to go, and Santos’ story made me realise how urgent this situation is.

Since returning from Zambia and becoming involved in action/2015, I’ve realised that decisions have to be made at a government level to see the scale of change needed. That was the reason for my question to Ed Miliband and Mary Creagh. Did you know that this year marks 150 years since we in the UK had our own first proper sewerage system? So, whoever gets into Government, it’s us who should be shouting the loudest about what a difference loos make to our lives!  Before Bazalgette’s sewers, my home city of London suffered frequent cholera outbreaks – living here in 1865 wouldn’t have been so different to living in some of the stinking slums I saw in urban Zambia, where raw sewage in the water supply means deadly diseases are an ever-present threat.

In a relatively short amount of time we transformed life in the UK – and it was the Government leading the way, finding the funds for the sewer system when the “Great Stink” of 1858 was literally on their doorstep (the stench from the sewage in the Thames was getting up their noses in the Houses of Parliament!). The stink is a bit further from Westminster now – but that’s no reason for our politicians not to act. If we could do it here then, there’s no reason the same progress can’t be made worldwide now.

In September, world leaders will set global targets for the next 15 years, the Sustainable Development Goals. These targets could include an end to extreme poverty and universal access to clean water and safe toilets by 2030. What I really want to see our politicians doing now, is making sure that progress against these targets is measured in a way that will encourage sustainable solutions, not short-term fixes. It would be great to see the UK showing the foresight to lead the way. I hope that’s something the next Government will prioritise – to make sure the next generation aren’t fighting the same battle all over again.

By George Rosenfeld, ambassador for action/2015 youth

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For more information on the action/2015 campaign and youth click here. The action/2015 Youth Panel is co-facilitated by British Youth Council, BOND, Islamic Relief, Progressio and Restless Development and Y Care International.

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