Q&A: Sanitation Crisis Runs Deep in Africa, Asia
Thalif Deen interviews SONG YOUNG-GON, head of the World Toilet Association
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 24 (IPS) – As part of the International Year of Sanitation (IYS), the United Nations launched an aggressive campaign last year to fend off what it called a “silent global crisis”: the woeful lack of adequate sanitation in the world’s poorest countries.
But the U.N.’s best efforts were still not good enough judging by the fact that over 40 percent of the global population – 2.6 billion out of nearly 6.0 billion people – still live without proper toilet facilities.
The problems continue to linger – specifically in Asia and Africa, where more than 5,000 children, mostly under five years of age, die every day due to lack of sanitation and hygiene, according to the United Nations.
“The most urgent thing for meeting sanitation needs is changing people’s mindset and behaviour,” says Song Young-Gon, secretary-general of the Seoul-based World Toilet Association (WTA), which is currently building public toilets in Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Cameroon, Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia.
In an interview with U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, Song pointed out that poor sanitation and inadequate toilets are caused primarily by a lack of understanding about the importance of toilets and sanitation; current poverty levels; and meagre investments by governments and local communities.
The annual cost of meeting the water and sanitation targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is 11.3 billion dollars, of which 9.5 billion is for sanitation alone. The deadline is 2015.
“These unfavourable conditions are all interrelated and exacerbate the situation,” he said. “It is highly unlikely that we can reach the sanitation goals by 2015.”
One positive sign, however, is that the income level in many countries is increasing and people have slowly begun to show interest in toilets and sanitation, Song added.
In addition, he said non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been working in the field to publicise this harsh reality to the rest of the world.
“We take heart from these initiatives. If we keep on making progress in this way, we will be able to see tangible results.”
Excerpts from the interview follow.
IPS: What are the regions urgently in need of help to meet their sanitation goals? Africa? Asia? Latin America? According to the U.N., 62 percent of Africans do not have access to improved sanitation. If so, why are they lagging far behind other regions?
SY: About 40 percent of the world population lives without proper toilets. They primarily reside in Africa and Asia, two regions that are most urgently in need of toilets and sanitation aid. Residents live under the constant threat of contracting typhoid [enteric] fever, cholera, enteritis, and malaria.
For example, a lack of toilets makes it impossible to separate drinking water from waste water. As a result, drinking water becomes polluted. People must either buy water or drink polluted water. Yet, the average income of a slum resident in Africa is less than a dollar per day; when they are forced to buy drinking water they use more than 30 percent of their income. This contributes to the never-ending cycle of poverty.
In addition, polluted water and an inadequate water supply for people to wash their hands cause waterborne diseases, which ultimately prevents people from working. Unemployment then increases the poverty level. In extreme cases, these diseases result in death, since people cannot afford medical treatment. It is clear that the lack of toilets is intricately related to poverty and sickness.
The improvement of sanitation, therefore, can advance the improvement of other social problems. Without proper sanitation, poverty aid is but a temporary expedient.
IPS: What are the major shortcomings in meeting the sanitation needs of developing nations? Funding? Lack of support from governments? Absence of political will?
SY: The most urgent is changing people’s mindset and behaviour. People must recognise the importance of defecating in toilets instead of open spaces. In order for this to happen, there needs to be proper education programmes. National and local governments must assume this responsibility.
There must also be adequate funding, political will, and popular support in place. These factors are crucial. People must first become aware of the importance of toilets and sanitation to motivate central and local governments to implement such programmes.
IPS: What role is envisaged for the World Toilet Association in helping improve sanitation in the developing world? What are your ongoing projects? And what are your future plans?
SY: The primary goal of the WTA is to improve toilet standards throughout the world and make people recognise the importance of toilets through various initiatives. Our work is in line with the vision of the U.N. and other international NGOs, which emphasise the importance of sanitation for saving millions of lives.
One of our current projects is the Public Toilet Building Pilot Project, which began in 2008. The WTA selected nine countries in Asia and Africa to build public restrooms that will serve local residents. The WTA received a total of 82 applications from 19 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The criteria for selection involved their status as a developing country, locations where people – especially women, the elderly, and children – could benefit the most, and an area where local participation would be highest.
The WTA selected Nyameani (Ghana), Korogocho (Kenya), Limpopo (South Africa), Bamenda (Cameroon), Kecamatan Menteng (Indonesia), Vientianne (Laos) and Phnom Penh (Cambodia). Last August, the WTA dispatched field investigation teams in order to assess the feasibility of building public toilets there.
The mission was comprised of WTA Secretariat officials, video experts, and a Board member from each region. In addition to their assessments, the WTA delegation also collected data on the sanitation conditions of the target nations, built networks with regional governments and organisations, stressed the need for sanitation training in each region, and emphasised the importance of maintenance and management after construction was completed.
The toilets are scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2009. We expect thousands of people to benefit from these public restrooms. In particular, we are grateful to be providing assistance to the people living in the slums, and to the students in the schools.
We hope to expand this project to other regions in the future as well. We are also in the process of developing education programmes in these places to continually increase awareness about the importance of toilets and the proper way to maintain them. And in September, 2009, the WTA will hold its first General Assembly in Zibo, China.
Through this event we plan to reach out to new members and organisations, solidify existing relationships, and develop and strengthen our initiatives. And through all of these endeavours, we hope that the WTA will be a primary crusader in the fight for improved sanitation through toilets.