Sanitation, a crucial factor for good health | Sunday Observer

Sanitation, a crucial factor for good health

20 November, 2022

The world recently surpassed the population landmark of eight billion. This brings with it a variety of challenges and one of the biggest is sanitation. Did you know that approximately half the world’s population does not have access to a toilet? This can lead to tragic consequences – every year, more than 500,000 children die from cholera, diarrhoea and other such diseases as they have no access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities.

Millions of people around the world resort to open defecation as they have no access to toilets. This is an unhealthy, not to mention demeaning, practice that can endanger the health of individuals young and old. Sanitation is also a question of basic dignity and women’s safety, who should not risk being victims of rape and abuse because of lack of access to a toilet that offers privacy.

Impact of the sanitation crisis

Although bit of a taboo subject, the United Nations has dedicated a day of the year to celebrate toilets, if one can put it that way. World Toilet Day 2022, which fell yesterday focused on the impact of the sanitation crisis on groundwater.

This observance, held annually since 2013, celebrates toilets and raises awareness of the nearly four billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation. It is about taking action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: sanitation and water for all by 2030.

The 2022 campaign ‘Making the invisible visible’ explores how inadequate sanitation systems spread human waste into rivers, lakes and soil, polluting underground water resources. However, this problem seems to be invisible. Invisible because it happens underground. Invisible because it happens in the poorest and most marginalized communities around the world.

Groundwater is the world’s most abundant source of freshwater. It supports drinking water supplies, sanitation systems, farming, industry and ecosystems. As Climate Change worsens and populations grow, groundwater is vital for human survival. After all, groundwater accounts for approximately 99 percent of all liquid freshwater on Earth. Groundwater provides half of all water withdrawn for domestic use, including the drinking water for the vast majority of the rural population. Globally, at least two billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces.

Without safely managed, sustainable sanitation, people often have no choice but to use unreliable, inadequate toilets or practise open defecation. Even where toilets exist, overflows and leaks from pipes and septic systems, and dumping or improper treatment, can mean untreated human waste gets out into the environment and spreads deadly and chronic diseases such as cholera and intestinal worms.

The central message of World Toilet Day 2022 is that safely managed sanitation protects groundwater from human waste pollution. Currently, the world is seriously off track to meet the promise of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.2: to ensure safe toilets for all by 2030.

Three key messages

The campaign urges governments to work on average four times faster to ensure SDG 6.2 is achieved on time. Policymakers are also called upon to fully recognise the connection between sanitation and groundwater in their plans to safeguard this vital water resource. The UN has announced three key messages for World Toilet Day 2022. They are: Safe sanitation protects groundwater.

Toilets that are properly sited and connected to safely managed sanitation systems, collect, treat and dispose of human waste, and help prevent human waste from spreading into groundwater; Sanitation must withstand Climate Change. Toilets and sanitation systems must be built or adapted to cope with extreme weather events, so that services always function and groundwater is protected. Sanitation action is urgent. We are seriously off track to ensure safe toilets for all by 2030.

With only eight years left, the world needs to work four times faster to meet our promise. The UN also recognises the role that civil society and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) play in raising awareness of this issue. It also calls on countries to approach sanitation in a much broader context that includes hygiene promotion, the provision of basic sanitation services, and sewerage and wastewater treatment and reuse in the context of Integrated Water Management (IWM).

These issues will be debated at the UN 2023 Water Conference, to be held at the UN Headquarters in New York, March 22-24, 2023. It is the first of its kind in a generation. This event is a watershed moment to unite the world around ensuring water security for all. The Conference, which is designed to be inclusive, cross-sectoral and action-oriented, will be co-hosted by Tajikistan and the Netherlands.

Increased productivity

This will highlight UN Secretary General’s message that every dollar invested in toilets and sanitation is repaid five-fold in lower health costs and increased productivity, education, and jobs. As he rightly notes, the benefits of better sanitation go far beyond public health. Safe toilets and sanitation improve nutrition, help to manage scarce water resources, and promote school attendance and work opportunities, particularly for women and girls.

Sri Lanka has fared better than many other South Asian countries in terms of toilets and sanitation, with around 90 percent of the households having access to safe sanitation. But this still leaves around two million people without access to good toilets, especially in tenement gardens, coastal communities and some remote villages.

Most rural schools do not have good toilets, which means students have to do their business in the open. It has also been noted that some toilet pits have been improperly constructed, leading to raw sewage contaminating the water table.

The country began a drive to construct one million more toilets a few years ago, though its progress is not very clear. And we badly need public toilets, even on a fee-levying basis. There are a few of them dotted around Colombo, but more should be built in other towns and suburbs. It has also been observed that many important tourist attractions in Sri Lanka do not have good toilets and rest areas. This is a must to develop tourism. While Covid-19 gave us a few lessons in terms of hygiene, we must take the momentum forward in terms of sanitation too to align with UN goals.