Why World Toilet Day 2013 matters: unblocking constipated progress on sanitation
Author: Julian Doczi, Research Officer – Water Policy, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London, UK, firstname.lastname@example.org
A few months ago, the sanitation world received a welcome boost when the UN General Assembly officially recognised World Toilet Day. Founded in 2001 by popular sanitation advocate Jack Sim, and celebrated on November 19 each year, this Day aims to draw attention to the global sanitation crisis via the toilet, a topic which causes discomfort or giggles for many. Indeed, the Day has always had both a fun and serious side, with healthy doses of toilet humour running alongside the sobering headline that 2.5 billion people worldwide still lack access to improved sanitation. But its formal recognition this year is an important milestone, and one of several recent developments that could mark the beginning of a real sea change in political momentum toward the achievement of decent sanitation for all.
There is still a long way to go. Poor sanitation exacts a huge human burden and costs the global economy over US$260 billion per year, with health, education, personal security, human dignity, and the environment all affected. While sector specialists have long recognised these impacts, skewed heavily towards women and children, ministries and politicians have often preferred to look away. In the first iteration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, sanitation was ignored completely, and was included only as an afterthought in 2002. Afterthought or not though, the target – to reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015 – has stimulated a healthier public and political debate, though progress is still slow. While the world has already met the drinking water target, it remains off-track for the sanitation target, with rural dwellers and the urban poor lagging most.
From the MDG target came further breakthroughs. The focus on water and sanitation in the 2006 Human Development Report was a timely reminder of the link between poor sanitation and poverty, and was followed by the UN General Assembly’s declaration of 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation. Evidence suggests that this event galvanised a new surge of activity on sanitation that has continued to this day. Rose George’s widely read book on sanitation, The Big Necessity, which looked at the many factors constraining sanitation progress, provides a useful reference point for assessing the level of progress over the last five years.
So what does this new surge of activity on sanitation look like, and who is championing the cause? Since 2008 we have seen:
- Matt Damon, Bono, Richard Branson and many others going on a ‘toilet strike‘ for sanitation earlier this year
- Unprecedented levels of investment in sanitation by donors like USAID (investing $1 billion USD in their new ‘Water and Development Strategy’ for 2013-2018), DFID (investing £104 million in their new ‘Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Results Programme’) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (investing at least $250 million USD in water, sanitation and hygiene initiatives since 2010, including their ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’)
- Access to water and sanitation declared a fundamental human right by the UN General Assembly in 2010, affirmed by UN Human Rights Council, and now allowing citizens to legally demand these rights from their states
- Strong likelihood of an independent and more holistic goal (not just a single target) on ‘water and sanitation for all‘ in the Sustainable Development Goals set to succeed the MDGs in 2015, driven by strong advocacy and clear global demand
- The Sanitation and Water for All Partnership, established in 2010, consisting of high-level representatives from 44 developing country governments and a variety of development partners, meeting regularly to catalyse more political leadership and action on sanitation
- Major national campaigns for sanitation in many off-track countries, such as the recent ‘Nirmal Bharat Yatra‘ in India: a sanitation awareness and behaviour change ‘travelling carnival’ that directly reached over 160,000 attendees last year
- An official, UN-approved and permanent day for drawing attention to the sanitation crisis – World Toilet Day!
Have we now have reached a point of no return for sanitation? Big challenges remain, and the test will be progress on the ground, but the growing momentum can only be cause for optimism. World Toilet Day provides an opportunity for advocacy on sanitation at all levels, raising interest, helping to overcome shame and embarrassment, and stimulating investment. No longer is sanitation mainly an engineer’s domain either. The development community increasingly understands that the social and political incentives for sanitation decision making, among both politicians and citizens, are key to unblocking progress. This means that solutions are not straightforward, and points to new directions for engagement at the country level.
So congratulations to Jack Sim and all the other sanitation advocates as we take stock today, and remind ourselves of what still needs to be done. World Toilet Day is a clear sign that we’re moving in the right direction.