New York, 22 March 2013 -
To mark World Water Day 2013, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson has announced that he is convening, on behalf of the Secretary-General and the UN, a renewed effort to drive progress on sanitation as we head towards the 2015 target date for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Of the world’s seven billion people, six billion have mobile phones. Yet only 4.5 billion have access to toilets or latrines - meaning that 2.5 billion people, mostly in rural areas, do not have proper sanitation. Unbelievably, 1.1 billion people still defecate in the open.
“I am determined to energize action that will lead to results,” said Mr. Eliasson. “I am calling on all actors - government, civil society, business and international organizations - to commit to measurable action and to mobilize the resources to rapidly increase access to basic sanitation.
“Let’s face it - this is a problem that people do not like to talk about. But it goes to the heart of ensuring good health, a clean environment and fundamental human dignity for billions of people - and achieving the Millennium Development Goals. With just over a thousand days for action before the 2015 MDG deadline, we have a unique window of opportunity to deliver a generational change.”
Meeting targets, reducing poverty and disease
The MDG target to halve the proportion of people without access to sanitation has helped to raise the profile of the issue, and 1.8 billion people gained access to improved sanitation since 1990, but there is still far to go. By contrast, the MDG target to halve the proportion of people without access to improved sources of water has already been met.
The call to action aims to focus on improving hygiene, changing social norms, better managing human waste and waste-water, and, by 2025, completely eliminating the practice of open defecation, which perpetuates the vicious cycle of disease and entrenched poverty. The countries where open defecation is most widely practiced are the same countries with the highest numbers of under-five child deaths, high levels of under-nutrition and poverty, and large wealth disparities. There are strong gender impacts, as having to go outside their homes to relieve themselves makes women and girls vulnerable to violence, and lack of safe, private toilets at schools is a major impediment to girls’ education.
Doing nothing is costly. Every US$1 spent on sanitation brings a US$5.50 return by keeping people healthy and productive. Poor sanitation, on the other hand, costs countries between 0.5 and 7.2 per cent of their GDP. Some 20 countries, mostly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, account for over 80 per cent of open defecation in the world.
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Martin Mogwanja stated: “We wholeheartedly support the Deputy Secretary-General’s call to action, and I know that other UN agencies do as well. Ending open defecation will contribute to a 36 per cent reduction in diarrhea, which kills three quarters of a million children under five each year. We know that community approaches to ‘total sanitation’ work. We strongly support this effort to increase the focus on sanitation.”
The initiative builds on the strong commitment already made by Member States to take action through the Sanitation Drive to 2015 endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2010, as well as the Sanitation and Water For All partnership which includes over 40 governments, civil society, UN organizations and multilateral development banks.
Ambassador Csaba Korosi, Permanent Representative of Hungary to the UN, remarked, “As one of the co-chairs of the ‘Friends of Water’ group of Member States active on this issue, I commend the Deputy Secretary-General for his engagement. I pledge to help him in his aim to urge Governments to renew their commitments to end open defecation by 2025, with concrete plans and measurable milestones. Solutions exist and affordable, safe, effective and sustainable approaches and technologies are available - they just need to be prioritized and scaled up.”
Focus at community level
The key to the Deputy Secretary-General’s undertaking - which is not a new programme in itself and will not set up any new structures or funding mechanisms - is to focus on generating action at the community level - one community at a time. It aims to engage community leaders, schools, local institutions and citizens, with support from government leaders and international organizations.
Civil society groups will be key to carrying out the work envisaged, and advocacy is essential to break the silence and make this a public issue. Kate Norgrove, Head of Campaigns for WaterAid, one of the world's preeminent NGOs focused exclusively on water and sanitation issues, stated, “WaterAid strongly supports the Deputy Secretary-General and will raise awareness and engage communities to help achieve his call to action. Few interventions would have greater impact on the lives of women and girls than addressing the health problems caused by poor sanitation and hygiene.”