It’s World Toilet Day, and there are 407 days left before the target end date of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). By that time, the hope is to reduce by half the number of people in the world living without safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
Unfortunately, while the water target was met, sanitation is still way off. The 2014 United Nations Millennium Development Goals Report noted that a billion people still practice open defecation and a staggering 2.5 billion people total don’t have safe access.
Why such a delay?
In part, it’s a numbers game. The percentage of people without a toilet in 1990 was much higher than the percentage of people without water – so to halve those without sanitation was a bigger job to begin with.
Additionally, what goes into providing “improved sanitation” can often take many more resources, and significantly more upkeep than what’s needed for safe drinking water. Access is counted differently; while an entire community can share a borehole in order to access an improved water source, it’s not feasible for an entire community to share one toilet. Toilets are relatively expensive, and it takes much more manpower to construct 50 latrines than it does to drill a borehole and install a hand pump.
And the dire health impacts of no water are often much more evident and immediately life threatening than the still-significant health ramifications of unsafe sanitation. The demand for water is naturally higher.
What’s being done?
Great efforts are being made – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is seeking to develop alternative toilet models that will provide easy access to diverse populations; USAID is working to tap into the private sector to develop affordable market-driven sanitation demand; and hundreds of organizations like Pure Water are providing access to one family at a time in some of the world’s most underserved regions.
But beyond that, it’s necessary to investigate what more can be done. And as the United Nations considers the post-MDG development agenda, stakeholders are pushing to ensure that sanitation remains a focus. A Sustainable Development Goal Working Group is underway, and proposed Goal 6 seeks to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”
What will it take?
A recent workshop at the World Bank in Washington highlighted this need in a discussion ofMonitoring Sanitation Program Progress Post-2015, and noted the types of programming that would be needed to bring the post-2015 sanitation goal to the next level – to expand on existing work, learn from past efforts, and to achieve and surpass the MDG target.
Access to basic sanitation is just the first step in achieving the health benefits of human waste management. The goal for “sustainable management” of sanitation broadens this focus and targets achievements beyond a basic toilet.
What does that mean?
First, it could mean expanding our mindset from simply containing human waste – the first step in the sanitation delivery chain – to the other steps involved in managing fecal sludge. Once it’s contained, for example in a latrine pit or septic tank, waste often needs to be emptied, transported, and ideally treated. It can also be reused, and innovation is necessary to develop viable uses for waste such as fuel or fertilizer.
Second, it means an increased focus on urban sanitation. Much work to date has emphasized rural sanitation options, and the needs of the urban poor often differ. Land is limited, so toilet options must efficiently use space, and the need for emptying services are higher.
Third, it means expanding focus from households, which was the main emphasis of the MDGs, to increased access in public spaces, health facilities and schools as well.
And finally, we need to shift focus from the low-hanging fruit. Programming has often concentrated on providing access to as many individuals as quickly as possible, and this sometimes means targeting the easiest people and places to reach. Priority will need to shift to more challenging populations and geographic areas.
Is all this possible?
It’s not easy, but sanitation dialogue is on the rise, and events like World Toilet Day certainly help to showcase the issues. While we have 407 days until the end of the MDGs, they’ll be plenty of work to be done beyond that, whether the target is met or not.
Pure Water is committed to continuing our mission to bring sanitation to some of the most needed areas. So spread the word – it’s World Toilet Day. There’s work to be done, and #WeCantWait.