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We need to talk about sanitation

WaterAid Chief Executive Barbara Frost writes about putting the focus on sanitation and open defecation.

29 Aug 2013

Sanitation and open defecation (the practice of going to the toilet out in the open) is an issue that rarely attracts serious international political attention.

Somewhat understandably, politicians – both in developed and developing countries – don’t believe that this is an issue that will resonate with voters, and imagine that the public want to talk about something a bit more, well, appealing...

Maybe this is changing though. Today, the second most senior official at the United Nations, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson gave an impassioned speech, which you can watch here, at the opening plenary of the World Water Week conference in Stockholm.

In it he said, "We must break taboos. As was the case for the word ‘toilets’ a few years ago, it is time to incorporate 'open defecation' in the political language and in the diplomatic discourse." He said this in front of dignitaries and news TV cameras from around the world, as well as the hundreds amassed in the main hall.

Well, Mr Eliasson is 100% right. It's time to put aside your reservations and that icky feeling. Like it or not, we need to talk about these issues. A staggering 2.5 billion people, over one in three of the world's population, lack access to something as simple as a clean, safe toilet, while around one billion of these people have no choice but to go to the toilet outside wherever they can.

In the most poignant part of Jan Eliasson's speech today, he pointed to why "poor sanitation and hygiene is the primary cause of diarrhoea. Diarrhoea is, after pneumonia, the biggest killer of children under five in the world, responsible for 800,000 deaths each year – around 2,000 children every day." He added, "Let’s pause for a minute and reflect on this – 2,000 children every day."

He listed many other arguments why providing access to the third of humanity without sanitation is important – the economic loss, the ill-health, how it can stunt children's growth – but one of the most important aspects he picked up on right at the beginning of his remarks, when he said that water and sanitation are "key for enabling a life of dignity for billions of people around the globe."

That over a third of all the people on the globe are faced with the daily indignity of not having a toilet is just shocking. In this world of modern technology, global communications, and virtually limitless information at our finger tips, that so many, don't have access to something so basic, so low-tech, is an injustice.

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognised in a vote the right to these basic services. They codified in international law that people have a right to water and, crucially, sanitation. While the recognition to this right has been, and will continue to be, important in getting access to sanitation, this challenge is, and always has been, about political will.

And that takes us back to where we started, with Jan Eliasson. Maybe his most important statement was just making this speech about sanitation in the first place. That he chose to use this opportunity and moment to talk about this subject is vitally important. We need more Jan Eliasson's – many, many more. We need to get politicians at all levels, in all countries, both on the local, national and international stage talking about sanitation.

And, like it or not, we will need to talk about it until this crisis – because that is what it is – is solved. WaterAid is calling on governments to commit to a new target, where everyone, everywhere has access to water and sanitation by 2030. With more allies, we may well be able to get the agreement in place, but we will need hundreds, if not thousands more, to generate the political will, financing and capacity required to actually get the work done, year in year out, to make this a reality.

Jan Eliasson understands this dynamic well. He made the point, a lot more eloquently himself in his speech, when he said, "Nobody can do everything – but everyone can do something." Well, we at WaterAid will be doing our bit, and we will be encouraging others to do their bit also.

Read WaterAid's media response to the Deputy Secretary-General's speech >