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At an April press conference, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, held up a handwritten number and announced, “2030. This is it. This is the global target to end poverty.” That historic moment also served to underscore some of the dilemmas actors in the WASH sector grapple with. How do we establish audacious, yet realistic goals? How do we announce an ambitious goal, such as full water and sanitation coverage in a number of countries, and have confidence that we have a reasonable chance of achieving it? This week is World Water Week, and in partnership with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, we asked some of the world's water experts exactly these questions. View the full debate here.
We are now in the final 1000 days leading to 2015 -- the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals. It is clear that the challenge ahead is great despite the enormous progress that has already been made.
We have achieved the MDG target on access to drinking water; poverty has been reduced; disease epidemics have been brought under control; more children are in school. But these truly great achievements – a testament to the world’s ability to solve even the most intractable problems – are blighted by the fact that even today more than one in three of our fellow human beings do not have access to even a basic toilet. One third of the world’s population.
In some areas, however, new partnerships and innovation are set to deliver generational change.
Martin Ayo is a carpenter in the village of Iyorpuu in the state of Benue in Nigeria. His community had just been “triggered” to end open defecation – a harmful practice in terms of health impact and an essential first step on the way to bettering the lives of millions of people by creating a demand for improved sanitation. In this community, as in many others in the region there is a common belief that ‘hot’ or bad smelling air from the pit can cause illnesses. Women in particular became reluctant to use the latrines because they believe that “sickness” can enter them from the hot air rising out of the pit when they removed the pit hole cover.
Martin designed a simple cover for the pit hole with a wooden handle and a layer of mesh held together by a wooden frame so that hot air does not remain trapped in the pit. “There are two reasons for using mesh for in the design of my pit hole cover," Martin said. "Firstly, it prevents flies getting into the pit, touching the faeces and taking it back to the community. But if the cover was made of solid wood, heat would accumulate in the latrine. The mesh allows heat to escape."
A simple solution to address the community’s concerns, which saves the lives of children. And it did not come from Silicon Valley, but from Iyorpuu itself. At US$3 per cover, it is in high demand, and is now used well beyond Martin’s own community. Meanwhile, Martin has moved on to providing other sanitation-related products such as latrine doors.
This kind of innovation is what we need at all levels to address sanitation.
At the other end of the scale, we have the partnership UNICEF has entered into with Unilever to help 600,000 people in nine countries abandon the practice of open defecation. This partnership is not about pet projects that could never be scaled up. Instead, Unilever is putting its weight behind a global programme which is already working.
UNICEF’s programme on Community Approaches to Total Sanitation (CATS) encourages communities to identify their own measures to end open defecation. It is achieving enormous results at scale. Over the last five years, with UNICEF’s help, more than 25 million people are living in approximately 40,000 communities which have been declared free of open defecation. At the last count, over 50 countries have incorporated a similar approach into their national policy, potentially reaching even more people.
Access to sanitation matters. It matters because it protects children from disease and malnutrition. It matters because it affects the poorest and most disadvantaged. It matters for the economy of the nation – the World Bank estimates that poor sanitation costs countries between 0.5 and 7.2% of their GDP every year. And it matters because it is unacceptable that women and girls have to risk being the victims of rape and sexual abuse because they have to go into the bushes to defecate.
Addressing this problem is not just important in itself, but lies at the core of addressing the unfinished agenda on the Millennium Development Goals.
But we need everyone to play their part. We need national governments to lead by making the commitment and allocating human and financial resources, and developing concrete plans. We need local governments to work with communities to help them to help themselves. We need civil society organisations to support communities, to monitor progress on the ground and to help local and national governments to deliver on their promises.
And we need the private sector – businesses of all sizes – to recognise that this is not just a moral imperative, but that it makes business sense to invest in the health of present and future customers.
We know what works. We know that this is not about giving people toilets. It is about dignity. It is about helping people take pride in being part of communities where everyone uses their own toilet, and where people themselves are empowered to take the initiative, and where others support them to do so. This is already happening in many countries – we just need it to happen - faster, and in many more places.
This is an action agenda - one where we all have to work together.
This is not about grandiose declarations and political posturing. It is about keeping the promises we all made in September 2000.
Sanjay Wijesekera is Associate Director of Programmes in UNICEF and head of the organization’s global programmes for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene.