'Talking Dirty' on Sanitation Can Save Lives

BEPPU, Japan - Although 2.6 billion people in the world -- two-thirds of whom are in southern or eastern Asia -- are living without access to basic sanitation, the issue has been a poor cousin to water supply in terms of visibility and financing.However, efforts are now on to reverse this neglect.

Tuesday, the second day of the 1st Asia-Pacific Water Summit being held here, saw the regional launch of the International Year of Sanitation (IYS) 2008. Set up by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006, IYS will help accelerate progress on sanitation by putting the spotlight on the "silent crisis''.

Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC)'s governor Koji Tanami reminded conference delegates of the sobering fact that 4,500 children die every day because of diarrhoeal and other diseases caused by a lack of proper sanitation.

Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, chairperson of the U.N. Secretary General's advisory board on water and sanitation, said the IYS could lead to positive results, much like what had been done regarding the issue of HIV-AIDS.

"The AIDS pandemic has led to frank talk about unprotected sex and the use of condoms," he said. "It is our responsibility to use the IYS to promote the same sort of open discussion about hygiene and the safe disposal of human excreta."

Success stories in the Asia-Pacific region show that it is possible to achieve sanitation goals given the right political and financial support.

The prince said he was upbeat about the initiatives being taken by several communities to move away from open defecation.

"In India, I saw the positive results of the Total Sanitation Campaign, a good example of social innovation implemented by the Indian government," he said. "Bangladesh is now also implementing this comprehensive sanitation campaign that combines community pressure and government rewards."

Clarissa Brocklehurst, coordinator of the UN Water Task Force on Sanitation, asserted that achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015 was not as difficult as it seemed.

"Countries such as Vietnam are well on the way to reaching the MDG goals even before 2015," she remarked. But a number of countries in Central Asia still had a long way to go, she said.

"An investment of 10 billion dollars per year until 2015 would achieve the MDG sanitation goals. The same level of investment could achieve basic sanitation for the entire world within a few decades," she pointed out.

According to the U.N., more than one billion people worldwide have gained access to improved sanitation in the past 14 years, with the global sanitation coverage having increased from 49 percent to 59 per cent between 1990 and 2004.

Brocklehurst drew attention to the fact that simple subsidisation was not enough to lure the poor to build toilets. "We need to create supporting policies, develop low cost options, mobilise communities and even involve the private sector," she said.

Japan's role in striving to improve the water and sanitation facilities of its neighbours through official development assistance (ODA) and other forms of financial and technical aid was highlighted by the JBIC as well as by Japan's Vice Minister of the Environment, Masayoshi Namiki.

Namiki said Japan has designed a special septic system for the treatment of domestic waste that could be applied to other Asian countries.

Prof. Tetsuya Kusuda from Kitakyushu University shared some lessons learnt from experiences in improving sanitation through Japanese ODA loans. He stressed on the use of appropriate technology and not just building any kind of toilet and treatment facility.

Kusuda said that ODA projects should respect local culture and customs for sanitation. He also gave emphasis to capacity development for planning and implementation. He said operations and maintenance should be promoted alongside actual sanitation measures.

"Advanced countries have an obligation to support the poor living in unsanitary conditions," he said.

Several speakers shared the lessons learnt from governments and the public sector. A short documentary was shown to the delegates about a community in Bangalore that is using 'ecosan' (ecological sanitation) toilets with minimal use of water and a complete recycling of waste.

Chanchai Vitoonpanyakij, deputy director general of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, recounted the struggles of the Thai city in expanding its sewerage system amidst tight land restrictions. The city now has seven wastewater treatment plants.

"Due to lack of space, we had to build one wastewater treatment entirely underground," he said.

Chanchai said an important lesson they learnt was that it was essential to have a proper national and local government policy regarding wastewater in order to get some headway.

Delegates noted that sanitation has been largely left untouched by the private sector and this needed to change. Barbara Evans from the East Asian Ministerial Conference on Sanitation (EASAN) spoke on the need to look for new approaches in financing sanitation, which could involve the private sector in a creative manner.

"Sanitation cannot be incremental and provided in steps. There has to be total sanitation," said K.E.Seetharam of the Asian Development Bank.

He cited the example of Orissa in India where the efforts led by the group Gram Vikas (Village Development) resulted in every household having a proper toilet. He said it was important to give the message that one is not a member of the community unless one has a toilet.

Also during the conference, Yoshiro Mori, president of Japan Water Forum, launched the Water Web Project on Google Earth. The website will provide vital information on sanitation at a spatial level.

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.