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Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

UNICEF promotes safe sanitation for World Water Day 2008

© UNICEF/HQ07-0634/Pirozzi
Boys walk toward the UNICEF-provided latrine in the village of Kobelema, in Liberia. In countries with limited access to safe sanitation, simple household latrines can have a major impact on improving child health.

By Elizabeth Kiem

NEW YORK, USA, 19 March 2008 –  On World Water Day tomorrow, as on every other day, some 2.5 billion people will be ‘doing their business’ somewhere other than in a toilet or latrine. That is not a statistic many people want to examine too closely, but it is crucial data for efforts to reduce child mortality.

Lack of safe toilets leads to 200 million tonnes of untreated waste in our living environment every year. That waste is full of pathogens that cause diarrhoeal disease, the second leading cause of death for children under the age of five.

Reducing exposure to human waste through safe toilets and latrines dramatically reduces contamination, by a measure of nearly 400 million cases a year. A recent poll of 11,000 medical professionals for the British Medical Journal established sanitation as the greatest medical milestone in 150 years – ahead of penicillin, the successful use of anaesthesia and mapping the human genome.

© UNICEF/HQ06-1450/Bito
A girl washes her hands in the lavatory while other girls line up to use the facilities at San Antonio Primary School in Capiz Province, the Philippines. UNICEF has provided running water and improved sanitation services for the school.

Sanitation as an ‘institutional orphan’

Providing toilets is not just an efficient public health measure – it is also an affordable one.

“Good sanitation doesn’t mean expensive sanitation,” said UNICEF’s Chief of Water and Environmental Sanitation, Clarissa Brocklehurst. “It can be a very simple pit latrine, a well-sealed hole in the ground. That’s just as good as a flush toilet.”

Safe sanitation may be cheap and easy, but it can only be realized if people acknowledge its importance. A general aversion to talking about the issue of toilets – let alone addressing it – has left sanitation an “institutional orphan … caught between the ministry of water and the ministry of health,” said Ms. Brocklehurst.

Investment in sanitation affects more than public health. According to a World Health Organization survey, every $1 spent towards achieving Millennium Development Goal 7 – to halve the number of people living without safe sanitation by 2015 – saves more than $9 in health, environment and education costs.

© WASH 2008
A poster from the WASH (water supply, sanitation and hygiene) awareness campaign urges the world to ‘Hurry Up!’ and address the critical lack of toilets worldwide.

Likewise, the cost of inaction is high. The 1991 cholera outbreak in Peru, for example, which spread via unsafe water in slums and squatter settlements, cost the national economy $1 billion in just 10 weeks – more than three times Peru’s total investment in water and sanitation improvements during the 1980s.

‘Hurry Up!’ campaign

World Water Day is observed around the world, where unsafe water supplies contribute to 88 per cent of all diseases. In 2008, which is also the International Year of Sanitation, the message to governments around the world is that safe-water goals cannot be achieved without directly tackling the current sanitation crisis.

To underscore the urgency of the problem, a new WASH (water supply, sanitation and hygiene) publicity campaign highlights the ever-rising numbers of those affected. WASH campaign posters depict the universal signs for men and women’s bathrooms, urging the public: “Hurry Up! 2.6 billion people are waiting to use the toilet.”

Just a short time ago, that number was 2.4 billion. The time for action on global sanitation is now.




20 March 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Elizabeth Kiem looks at the toilet taboo and potty humour – no laughing matter if global sanitation goals are to be met.
 VIDEO  high | low

UNICEF correspondent Amy Bennett reports on 'Stand Up for Those Who Can’t Sit Down', an event sponsored by UNICEF and UN Water to promote awareness about the importance of sanitation.
 VIDEO  high | low

video on demand
from The Newsmarket


4 March 2008:
UNICEF Chief of Water, Environment and Sanitation Clarissa Brocklehurst tells UNICEF Radio why the importance of sanitation is often overlooked.
AUDIO listen

4 March 2008:
UNICEF Senior Adviser on Sanitation and Hygiene Therese Dooley discusses the health and economic benefits of good sanitation.
AUDIO listen

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