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Sanitation Moves Up Global Development Agenda

Sunaina Perera

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 19 2011 (IPS) - With nearly 40 percent of the world’s population lacking adequate sanitation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced an initiative Tuesday to invest 42 million dollars in new grants to help “reinvent the toilet”.

“About one out every seven people or so worldwide practices open defecation,” a spokesperson for the Gates Foundation told IPS.

Inadequate sanitation contributes to the deaths of about 1.5 million children each year from diarrheal disease.

“No innovation in the past 200 years has done more to save lives and improve health than the sanitation revolution triggered by invention of the toilet,” Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the foundation’s Global Development Program, said in a speech at AfricaSan, the third African Conference on Sanitation and Hygiene, organised by the African Ministers’ Council on Water.

“But it did not go far enough. It only reached one-third of the world. What we need are new approaches. New ideas. In short, we need to reinvent the toilet,” Burwell said.

Halving the number of people who cannot access basic sanitation – some 2.6 billion – is a major target of the United Nations 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Experts agree that more efficient technologies will be required. By 2030, global water demand is predicted to be 40 percent greater than today, according to a recent U.S.-led study “Charting Our Water Future” by the consultants McKinsey and Company.

About one-third of the population, concentrated in developing countries, will live in basins where this water deficit is larger than 50 percent, the study found.

Some of the research supported by Gates includes waterless toilets that do not rely on sewer connections or outside electricity – all for less than five cents a day.

Burwell stressed that finding hygienic, affordable, and sustainable ways to capture, treat, and recycle human waste also requires close collaboration with local communities to develop lasting sanitation solutions that meet their needs.

The Gates spokesperson told IPS that one of the focus areas is “policy and advocacy to ensure that the efforts in sanitation are guided towards people who are most underserved because we want to make sure that people who have unsafe sanitation are first on the list to receive approved sanitation.”

In the past, experts say, sanitation efforts by donors, governments and non-governmental organisations often failed because they were unpleasant, expensive and unsustainable.

The new strategy aims to create attractive alternatives, and finance new technologies that may even be able to turn human waste into fuel to power local communities, fertiliser to improve crops, or even safe drinking water.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that improved sanitation produces economic benefits in addition to the social benefits. These benefits may be up to nine dollars for every dollar invested, and include increased productivity, reduced health care costs, and lower illness, disability and mortality rates.

Currently, diseases caused by the lack of sanitation involved with open defecation account for about half of the total illnesses in the developing world.

The issues of dignity, privacy, and security are particularly relevant for women and girls, who require greater privacy and who will face less chance of sexual harassment if they are not forced to defecate in the open.

In October 2010, the 47-member Human Rights Council (HRC) affirmed that the right to water and sanitation was a basic human right, a consensus resolution described as a “historic first” for the U.N.’s premier human rights body based in Geneva.

But in reality, water and sanitation have remained two of the most neglected sub-texts of the eight MDGs.

However, there is momentum in the sector, and sanitation’s profile is rising, thanks in part to new initiatives like the Global Sanitation Fund operated by WSSCC and the Sanitation and Water for All initiative, a multi-stakeholder network reaching out directly to finance ministers, among others.

“It is imperative that after 2015, water and sanitation are part of the international development agenda not as part of environmental protection but as key motors for health and development in their own right,” said Jamie Bartram, director of the Water Institute at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, previously told IPS.

According to a release by the Gates Foundation, the latest grants announced Tuesday bring the foundation’s commitment to water, sanitation and hygiene efforts to a total of more than 265 million dollars.

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