Mon, Sep 01, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Struggling to end the blight caused by a lack of toilets

A top UN official says failure to address sanitation and open defecation threatens disaster for third of humanity by causing health and environmental problems and denying dignity to millions, especially females

By Sam Jones  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

The world’s lack of progress in building toilets and ending open defecation is having a “staggering” effect on the health, safety, education, prosperity and dignity of 2.5 billion people, UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson has warned.

Speaking as the UN prepares to debate a new set of development goals — and in the aftermath of the rape and murder of two Indian girls who were attacked as they ventured into a field to relieve themselves — Eliasson said the failure to address the issue of sanitation would prove disastrous for one-third of humanity.

“Sanitation is cross-cutting: If you make progress on sanitation, then you dramatically improve the achievement of at least four other goals,” he said.

“One of the main reasons for child mortality is diarrhea and dysentery because of bad water and a lack of sanitation. You get a much better way of working with maternal health issues: I can’t tell you how many women are dying in childbirth because of a lack of clean water. You’ll affect education, because people can’t go to school when they have these huge problems, and you will have productive people who can go to work,” he said.

Eliasson said building toilets for women was fundamental to gender equality, education — and safety.

“In Africa, in particular, there is an unfortunate situation where girls don’t have toilets in their schools,” he said. “It’s very easy to arrange them for the boys, but girls require more privacy. And then you get into the area that we saw in that horrible example in India, when the girls went out at night and were raped and killed. This is done in innumerable cases: men preying on young girls who are going out like that.”


According to the UN, 2.5 billion people still lack “improved sanitation facilities” — defined as ones that “hygienically separate human excreta from human contact,” down only 7 percent since 1990, when 2.7 billion lacked access, and more than 1 billion people — most of whom live in rural areas — have to defecate in gutters, behind bushes or into water.

More people have access to mobile phones than to toilets, it says.

“This, for me, is one of the most drastic and sad examples of the loss of dignity: allowing 1.1 billion people in 22 countries to practice open defecation,” Eliasson said. “Apart from the human dignity aspect, there is the health aspect and the environmental aspect.”

Eliasson, a former chairman of WaterAid Sweden, said he was driven to speak out by memories of the children he had seen die from diarrhea, dysentery and dehydration.

“It’s a very concrete challenge and it’s not rocket science,” he said. “We need to do something about it.”

Although he was heartened to see governments belatedly waking up to the importance of sanitation, progress has been far too slow.

The millennium development goal (MDG) on sanitation — which aims to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to basic sanitation by the end of next year — is unlikely to be met, he said.

“I think we have seen progress on water, although there are still 780 million people without safe water. But I am sad to say that we have not seen the same pace of progress on sanitation. On the contrary, I would say the sanitation goal is one of the most lagging of all the goals, and that is why we have tried our best to speed up the work for achieving it by the end of next year,” he said.

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