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'Toilets’ shouldn't be a dirty word

WaterAid’s Director of International Programmes, Girish Menon, opened today's debate on Water, Sanitation and Sustainable Energy in the Post-2015 Development Agenda at the UN General Assembly in New York.

Here are his reflections on why sanitation and water are so critical in the post-2015 process.

Blog

18 Feb 2014

I spent this morning talking toilets at the UN.

Of all the potential topics of conversation with global decision-makers, needing the toilet might not be high on your list. We all do it on a daily basis but in polite conversation, it appears we’d prefer not to talk about it.

Whether we like it or not, the silence surrounding how we dispose of our bodily waste has to be broken. The health, prosperity and wellbeing of 2.5 billion people rests on it – 2.5 billion people who right now have nowhere to go to the toilet.

This lack of basic sanitation facilities causes diseases that kill 2,000 children under the age of five every single day. As well as gross indignity, women and girls in particular face sexual harassment and even violence when defecating in the open.

It's a sign of how far we've come that today’s debate happened at all – that sanitation is now recognised as worthy of discussion at the highest level.

But there’s much further to go…

Put toilets at the centre of new goals

When the Millennium Development Goals were first agreed in 2000, sanitation wasn’t included. It was added later, as an afterthought. And now, progress towards the sanitation MDG target is massively off-track – in fact, it is one of the most off-track targets of all.

When the MDGs expire in 2015, a new set of ‘sustainable’ development goals and targets will replace them. It is vital that sanitation, along with safe water and hygiene, is at the forefront of this new framework.

So it’s been encouraging to hear key decision-makers in the UN acknowledging this today. Sitting next to me this morning was the President of the General Assembly His Excellency John Ashe who said that sanitation is one of “the pre-eminent development challenges of our world”. Minutes later, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added, “Access to water, sanitation and hygiene must feature prominently in the post-2015 agenda.”

For the last three years, the water and sanitation sector has been discussing possible targets for the post-2015 framework. 60 organisations from around the world, including WaterAid, have come together in a process facilitated by the World Health Organisation and Unicef’s Joint Monitoring Programme. This consultation has led to a shared vision of universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene. Furthermore, it includes a target on water and sanitation so that by 2030:

  • No one practises open defecation.
  • Every household, every school and every health centre has drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.
  • The proportion of the population without access at home to safely managed drinking water and sanitation is halved.
  • Inequalities in access are progressively eliminated.

I'd recommend that all those working on the post-2015 process read more about the targets and the consultation in this document.

This crisis can be tackled

But of course, achieving this vision will not be easy.

It needs member states to hold true to the ambition of creating a post-2015 framework that can both eradicate extreme poverty and achieve sustainable development.

It requires convincing donor and developing country governments to increase their financing for water, sanitation and hygiene.

It requires us to get better at making projects sustainable, so that the taps and toilets built today are still working in a decade’s time.

It requires us to move beyond serving just the easy-to-reach, to include all those who live in rural and remote areas, or who find their access limited by disability, gender, or ethnicity.

But it is possible.

I quoted Nelson Mandela this morning and his words seem entirely appropriate: "It always seems impossible until it is done."

This crisis can be tackled if national governments, donors, NGOs, civil society coalitions and the private sector work together to transform the lives of the world's poorest people.

Time to act

All over the world, people now recognise the importance of safe sanitation not just to the world’s poorest people but to all of us. Two million people have called for governments to commit to reaching everyone, everywhere with safe water and sanitation.

Today I heard toilets talked about in the UN.

Now it is time to act.

 

See reaction to the speech in this Storify: