Tuesday, November 19, 2013

World Toilet Day: Reasons to be Cheerful

Post by: Darren Saywell - Director of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Plan International USA

Almost as if by magic, World Toilet Day has arrived! A few months ago, sanitation practitioners worldwide celebrated concerted lobbying efforts after the UN’s General Assembly officially recognized each November 19th as World Toilet Day.

Like many of the international days of recognition, World Toilet Day aims to draw attention to its own cause – in this case the growing global sanitation crisis – but unlike many of its counterparts, this day has struggled to be taken seriously, often being belittled in the media, or dismissed in a fit of giggles by colleagues.

Yet there is a deadly serious message behind the day – not least for the 2.5 billion people worldwide who lack access to improved sanitation; the 2.2 million deaths per year, mainly in children under 5; the women and girls who suffer violence when searching for a safe place to defecate after dark; or the children who will grow up stunted as a result of persistent bouts of diarrhea.

Yet, whilst sector specialists have long been advocating for greater recognition for the very reasons given above, others have simply turned a blind eye. The original Millennium Development Goals in 2000 missed out sanitation altogether; at national levels no single ministry typically wants to take responsibility for this cause; politicians love to open water schemes, yet rarely think sewerage treatment plants or latrines fit to spend political capital on, or a photo opportunity. The list goes on and on.

So why am I so optimistic this November 19th? There are reasons to be cheerful – at least 3:
  1. The Sanitation and Water for All Partnership, established in 2010, provides a platform for the highest level of political prioritization in our sector. Led by former President John Kufour of Ghana, the SWA has been successful in organizing high level political dialogues on sanitation, including sector ministers, ministers of finance, senior leadership from the UN system, industry, civil society and donors. This is unprecedented in our sector.
  2. Sanitation is the new sexy: I marvel at the celebrity endorsements that our common cause gets these days – Matt Damon and his ‘Toilet Strike’; Bollywood star, Shahrukh Khan and cricket god Sachin Tendulkar have all lent considerable fame and brand profile to sanitation.
  3. The numbers are beginning to add up: the evidence for inaction on sanitation is growing. The World Bank reports that US$260 billion is lost in economic growth each year because of poor sanitation – these figures, when boiled down to the impact on annual GDP growth, tends to get the attention of ministers of finance, who begin to see why making small % changes in national budgetary allocations brings huge health and economic rewards.
Of course, our focus remains on addressing challenges, but the nature of the debate has changed fundamentally with sanitation. No longer the domain purely of engineers and technocrats, the sector is working in a much smarter way to look at blockages to service delivery, policy reform, financial flows, lifecycle costing and the realpolitik of national level coverage.

For a subject that has been dismissed for so long, there is finally a whiff of real change in the air.

Learn more about Plan's work in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene.

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