Finding the toilet in Stockholm
Published: 22 Aug 2008 14:27 GMT+02:00
Updated: 22 Aug 2008 14:27 GMT+02:00
Each year over 2 million deaths could be prevented with improvements related to drinking-water, sanitation and hygiene. To put that in perspective, we have it within our grasp to prevent the equivalent deaths of 10 Asian tsunamis or 1,000 Hurricane Katrinas.
Yet a major effortâlike those that have been launched to address HIV/AIDS and malariaâto tackle the global drinking water and sanitation crisis remains elusive. The scope of this disconnect is baffling; water- and sanitation-related diseases (like relatively-easy-to-prevent diarrhea) kill more children each year than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and measles combined.
One reason why there hasnât been a Herculean effort to address this global scourge is that we in the water and sanitation business are using the wrong words to describe the issue. We have not been proactive or coordinated enough to frame our issue to the media and the wider development community in an action-oriented âthis-can-be-doneâ tone.
All too often in the past, water and sanitation was framed by the word âprivatization.â This is problematic. This word instigates a blame game that can take the attention away from the end result of the sectorâs work: getting water and sanitation to those who need it. It also isnât a wide enough frame for the issue. Many of the innovative, scalable solutions to the water and sanitation crisis are locally initiated approaches, such as the production of latrine slabs or ceramic water filters.
There is a great need to reframe what water and sanitation is so that it makes sense. This effort will take leadership, resources, and working together (for more than one week in Stockholm). It will demand finding the right words to describe the issue and I propose that the theme to accomplish this is âuniversal access.â Developed countries have had universal access to water and sanitation for nearly 100 years. It makes no sense why the rest of the world canât get universal access as well.
Another factor as to why the water and sanitation crisis remains too often in the shadows is that âsanitationâ specifically has been ignored. Letâs face itâ diseases associated with sanitation, like diarrhea, do not have âdisease appealâ for governments and donors. The result is that very few people in the general public even know that 2.5 billion people do not have access to improved sanitationânearly half of whom have actually to resort to open defecation. Those that do learn are outraged and take action.
More resources must be devoted to recruiting sanitation champions. HIV/AIDS has a built-in constituency because many people have a direct connection with someone who has suffered from or died of HIV/AIDS. Malaria has David Beckham trumpeting its cause. Sanitation needs a brave soul to be its spokesperson.
It has become a joke in the sector that no one in their right mind would become a âsanitation spokesperson.â But this is no laughing matter. The lack of sanitation is one of the main reasons there isnât greater progress towards enabling the worldâs poorest of the poor from being able to meet their basis needs; malnutrition, poor education and disease burden are all exacerbated by inadequate sanitation. And the plight of the poor becomes more related to all of our survival as the world gets smaller each day.
So the appeal Iâd make to the 2,500 experts in Stockholm is figure out how to start a âuniversal accessâ campaign and to make sanitationâthe most important medical advance since 1840âa major part of it. Itâs time to elevate water and sanitation to the status that it enjoyed during the UNâs first Water Decade, which ended in 1990. This is, after all, the second Water Decade (2005-2015) in case we forgot. Itâs time to get this done.
John Sauer works as Communications Director for Water Advocates in Washington, DC. His work focuses on the development and implementation of communications strategies to increase US support and action - in both the private and public sectors - for worldwide access to safe, affordable, and sustainable drinking water and adequate sanitation.