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Some 361,000 children die of diarrhoeal disease every year because of poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint (Priyanka Parashar/Mint)
Some 361,000 children die of diarrhoeal disease every year because of poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint (Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

Watersheds protect children against diarrhoea: 35-nation study

The researchers hope the findings will help governments and development agencies to improve the health and environment of children around the world

New Delhi: Children living near watersheds that have greater tree cover are less likely to come down with diarrhoeal disease—the second leading cause of death for children under the age of five—according to a 35-nation study published on Monday.

The University of Vermont (UVM)-led study of 300,000 children across the world that was published in the journal ‘Nature Communications’ says a 30% increase in upstream tree cover in rural watersheds would have a “comparable effect to improved water sanitation, such as the addition of indoor plumbing or toilets."

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four deaths of children under 5 years of age is attributable to unhealthy environments. Some 361,000 children die of diarrhoeal disease every year because of poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene.

The researchers said the study is the first to quantify the connection between watershed quality and individual health outcomes of children on a global scale. A watershed is land which collects water under it— from rain or snow, for instance—which in turn drains off into a common outlet, such as rivers.

“Looking at all of these diverse households in all these different countries, we find the healthier your watershed upstream, the less likely your kids are to get this potentially fatal disease," said Taylor Ricketts of UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment.

The researchers hope the findings will help governments and development agencies to improve the health and environment of children around the world. But they clarified that more research is needed to fully understand exactly how watershed forests impact diseases like diarrhoea, which has many causes, including waterborne pathogens.

“This suggests that protecting watersheds, in the right circumstances, can double as a public health investment.This shows, very clearly, how ‘natural infrastructure’ can directly support human health and welfare," said Brendan Fisher of UVM.

Another researcher, Diego Herrera of UVM said, “We are not saying trees are more important than toilets and indoor plumbing. But these findings clearly show that forests and other natural systems can complement traditional water sanitation systems, and help compensate for a lack of infrastructure."

On this research, Dave Tickner, who is chief Freshwater Adviser at WWF, said, “This ground-breaking research shows the extent that our health and wellbeing can be influenced by the health of our forests and rivers."

“Many of these natural habitats are in critical condition. This is shown by the fact that, globally, there has been a 38 % fall in populations of land-dwelling animals, and a shocking 81 % decline in freshwater wildlife, between 1970 and 2012," he added.

The research covered 35 nations across Africa, southeast Asia, south America and the Caribbean and was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), the Luc Hoffmann Institute, and WWF—along with The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation.

The research team, led by Brendan Fisher and Taylor Ricketts of the University of Vermont, was made up of lead author Diego Herrera (UVM), Alicia Ellis (UVM), Christopher Golden (Harvard), Timothy Treuer (Princeton), Alexander Pfaff (Duke), Kiersten Johnson (USAID), and Mark Mulligan (King’s College London).

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