How can we ensure ‘sanitation and water for all’?

In two weeks over 50 member countries of the Sanitation and Water for All partnership will meet at the headquarters of the World Bank to signal their determination to bring to their citizens the benefits of two of the most basic necessities of life: safe drinking water and adequate toilets.

They will also be making tangible commitments, which they will monitor and report on.

‘Sanitation and water for all’ is more than a title. It is a goal that is both morally right and unquestionably necessary.

In a 2010 resolution, the UN General Assembly recognized safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right. This means, the UN’s member states have agreed that everyone everywhere should have a basic toilet and safe drinking water.

Yet, diarrhoea from inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene kills 1,400 children under five every day and sickens many thousands more. Stunting, linked to frequent bouts of diarrhoea, retards the development of about 165 million children worldwide. And we know that improved water and sanitation lowers the rate of stunting.

Last week on World Water Day we said that access to safe water was still out of the reach of three-quarters of a billion of the world’s population. Our last estimates were that 2.5 billion people do not have access to toilets, 1 billion of whom have to defecate in the open.  UNICEF and WHO project that by the MDG target date at end 2015 some 2.4 billion people still will not have adequate toilets.  These figures represent real people – people living in the poorest and most marginalised regions of the world.

The good news is that many countries are making great progress. For example, between 2000 and 2012, Ethiopia halved the proportion of people practicing open defecation – equitably across its 11 states, and with progress across all income levels.

However, we will not reach the last person with water and sanitation unless we find new, innovative, cost-effective and sustainable methods. One key challenge is helping people to get inexpensive, good quality products that they will use.

Martin Ayo with innovative latrine cover
Martin Ayo, from Iorpuu villge, Benue State, Nigeria with his wood and mesh latrine cover. © UNICEF-Nigeria/2014

Martin Ayo, a carpenter in the village of Iyorpuu in the state of Benue in Nigeria, invented a simple latrine cover made of wood and mesh, which serves the dual purpose of keeping flies out the pits, and releasing the build-up of gasses which was causing people to shun latrines as unhealthy. At $3 per cover, it is affordable, in high demand, and is now used well beyond Martin’s own community.

Lower cost manual drilling technologies are being used to supply water to some of the world’s poorest and most isolated regions. UNICEF and our partners have used hand-dug boreholes in Pakistan to supply safe water to around 100,000 people since 2012.

We are also using mobile phones and other new technology to generate awareness of issues in WASH. One example is the hugely successful ‘Take poo to the loo’ campaign in India, which leads people to talk about the unmentionable subject of faeces and defecation on social media, and agree that a problem exists and the solution is in their hands.

UNICEF is using mobile phone technology for water point mapping in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, useful in monitoring and repair of sources, as well as in identifying the most deprived areas.

UNICEF staff and volunteers unload relief supplies in Tacloban City
UNICEF staff and volunteers unload relief supplies in Tacloban City, among the areas worst affected by Typhoon Haiyan in Leyte Province, Eastern Visayas Region. Hygiene kits have been provided to 100,000 people, and toilet slabs and portable toilets are serving 25,000 people.

The SWA commitments – and the commitment to hold ourselves accountable to them – will be one of many steps the world needs to take. We need to take them together —communities, countries, donors and recipients, innovators and inventers – because when we leave one person behind, all of us have failed.

Sanjay Wijesekera is Associate Director, UNICEF Programme Division and Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene


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