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Ensuring safe water supplies and adequate sanitation throughout the developing world are the most effective measures for curbing poverty and improving health, a report claims.

The UN University (UNU) analysis, 'Safe Water as the Key to Global Health', released this week (20 October), urges researchers to fill crucial knowledge gaps in these areas.

"[These measures] cut across all the development indicators that we see," says Zafar Adeel, director of UNU's International Network on Water, Environment and Health (INWEH) and co-author of the report.

"When you don't have adequate water supply or sanitation, you can't meet your health or education targets … By addressing [these measures] you are going to create multiple benefits."

He told SciDev.Net that UNU wants to develop a global map identifying the communities most vulnerable to the health effects of inadequate water supply or sanitation. This, he says, is "crucial" for governments and the international community to allocate investment.

"In addition, there are other research gaps such as how do we define what is an adequate water supply [or] adequate sanitation access?" says Corinne Schuster-Wallace, a faculty member at INWEH and co-author of the report. "Until we have a standard global definition, we can't collect the data that we really need."

The report also calls for increased integration between various government agencies. "At the national scale, there is a great deal of discontinuity — sometimes even disparity — in how policies are formulated. For example, we might invest in water supply infrastructure, but whether you have a sustainable resource [or not] is not looked at. These connections need to be made at the top policy level," says Adeel.

He adds that many communities are unaware of which technologies are best for them. Therefore, UNU is creating an online tool where communities can input information about their situation and receive options on the appropriate kinds of technologies.

Colin Chartres, director of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute, told SciDev.Net access to safe drinking water and sanitation improves health and dignity for the poor.

"However, I argue with the contention that this is the top route to reducing world poverty. If we don't have enough food, fibre and fuel, having safe water to drink isn't that critical."  

He adds that he wants to see a more inclusive approach to water issues, where all types of water — agricultural, drinking, industrial and environmental — are dealt with together.

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