Per Kelly Ann Naylor and Bruce Gordon, WASH leaders for UNICEF and WHO
The disposal and treatment of human waste has been an integral part of human civilization for thousands of years. From the first clay sewer pipes in Mesopotamia in 4000 BC, to indoor plumbing in ancient Rome, to flushing toilets in the Industrial Revolution, sanitation has helped human health, development, and economic prosperity.
Sanitation is also a human right – which the United Nations has recognized as fundamental and inherent in all people.
But today, billions of people still do not enjoy the right to sanitation. Despite progress, more than half of the world’s population, 4.2 billion people, use sanitation services that leave human waste untreated, threatening both human health and the environment. Approximately 673 million people have no toilets at all and practice open urination, while 367 million school-age children do not have a toilet at school. The consequences of poor sanitation are detrimental to public health and social and economic development.
With only 10 years left until 2030, the rate at which access to sanitation is increasing will have to quadruple if the world is to achieve the sanitary goal of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). Yet, at the current rate of progress, the twenty-second century will pass before sanitation for all becomes a reality. Clearly, this is too slow. Meanwhile, as investment in sanitation is delayed, higher costs to the health system, the economy, albeit lost productivity, and the degraded environment increase.
Although the challenge often seems insurmountable, history shows that it is possible – sanitation can be a success story. Many countries have made rapid progress in covering sanitary conditions within a generation, transforming lives, the environment and the economy. In the 1960s and 1970s, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and Thailand achieved rapid and outstanding results to achieve overall sanitation coverage. In recent times, countries such as Ethiopia, India and Nepal have dramatically reduced open urgency and made progress towards universal access to basic sanitation – to name a few.
What can we learn from these sanitary champions? To begin with, each rapidly advancing country had strong political leadership, and governments played an important role in policy, planning, investment mobilization, and service regulation. And there is a good reason why governments are so interested in this topic: history shows us that no country has achieved high-income status without first investing in sanitation.
Many governments have also realized that while achieving universal access to safe sanitation will be costly, reluctance brings even greater costs. Without sanitation, recurring and preventative health care costs increase, revenues and educational opportunities are wasted, productivity is lost, and environmental pollution increases. Investments in sanitation – especially safely managed sanitation services – prevent these costs and generate positive externalities throughout society. The economic benefits of sanitation are estimated at about five times the cost.
In order to accelerate progress, sanitation must be defined as a basic public good. When governments take such a stance and accelerate investment in sanitation, they can help ensure that society as a whole reaps the benefits, not just the privileged few.
What does it look like in practice? Success comes by investing in five key “accelerators”:
- Good management, starting with strong political leadership, effective coordination and regulation
- Smart public finance lay the foundations for safe sanitation services, support the most vulnerable and attract private investment
- Capacity building throughout the sanitary sector, including training, human resource development, organizational development, research and innovation.
- Reliable data for better decision making and stronger accountability
- Innovation unlock better approaches and respond to new challenges such as urbanization and climate change
These accelerators are defined in detail in the new UNICEF World Health Organization Sanitation Reportt, launched today. Through this report, we want to draw attention to the sanitary crisis, consolidate the lessons of countries with high success and present a vision of what is needed to provide universal access to safe sanitation. We call on Member States, the United Nations system and partners to address these challenges urgently.
The world has come so far since ancient civilizations discovered the criticality of sanitation. Just ten years from the 2030 SDG target, we must continue to work together to achieve universal access to safe sanitation.
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