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Speech by Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director at launch of the Sustainable Sanitation Five-year Drive to 2015

New York, 21 June 2011

Thank you, Your Highness, for that introduction -- and for drawing attention to this critical – but too often ignored -- issue.  And thank you, Secretary General, for your leadership. 

Many of us here today came together last September at the UN MDG Summit to emphasize the importance of progress on sanitation.  Today, we are taking action – not only because sanitation is one of the goals on which we’ve made the least progress.  But because it is fundamental to health … especially to children’s health. 

Today, diarrhea will kill 3,000 children.  And tomorrow.  Every day. 

In fact, it is the second largest killer of children under five in the developing world.  And the leading causes of this killer disease?  Dirty water, poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene. 

This need not be so.  We can reduce cases of diarrhea in children under five by a third – and save an untold number of young lives -- simply by expanding the access of communities to sanitation.  
And by reducing diarrhea, we can also reduce the number of children who suffer from stunting – a terrible condition, worsened by diarrhea, which can irreversibly damage a child’s physical and cognitive development. 

This is an issue of equity.   It is no surprise that the world’s poorest communities are those that lag the farthest behind in sanitation.  Many communities not only have inadequate access to sanitation.  They have no access.  So we can make the greatest global progress by focusing our efforts more on reaching these communities.  It’s common sense.

This is not only a matter of investing in infrastructure.  It is a matter of communities themselves investing in achieving total sanitation -- putting an end to the dangerous practice of open defecation and doing more to promote better hygiene. 

Last year I visited a total sanitation project in a very poor community in Malawi.  It is succeeding not only by building latrines or water pumps.  Even more, it is succeeding by getting people to talk about the problem.  Elders reminding children to wash their hands.  Neighbors challenging neighbors to change their behavior – recognizing that even a single family can endanger the entire community. 

I saw how invested the local leaders were in the project and how proud they were that their children were healthier -- visibly so.  They had accomplished this goal by talking about the problem – and by doing something about it, together.

Since we began emphasizing community-led approaches in East and Southern Africa, the number of people who have gained access to sanitation through UNICEF programmes has increased six-fold. 
Focusing on total hygiene does more than improve health.  It can also improve the safety of women and girls, who are often targeted when they are alone outdoors.   And providing safe, private toilets may also help girls stay in school – which we know can increase their future earnings and help break the cycle of poverty. 

In a larger sense, improving sanitation also promotes dignity.  Personal dignity, of course.  But also a sense of community pride, like that of the villagers in Malawi who saw the tangible progress of their hard work … and the difference they could make in their own lives.

So I thank you all once again for your leadership – especially the governments of Jamaica, Japan and Panama, and the Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Sanitation, led so well by the Prince of Orange.  UNICEF is proud to be part of this effort – and we look forward to the work ahead.




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