By Lucy Johnson
Leaders from around the world gathered in 2000 to establish the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in an effort to reduce extreme poverty by 2015. As we near the expiration date for these goals, one particular target – to halve the number of people without basic sanitation by 2015 – is the furthest from being met.
Proper sanitation is critical for public health; it prevents the bacteria, viruses, and parasites found in excrement from infecting water, soil, and food. Yet by 2015, an estimated 2.4 billion people, or one-third of the world’s population, will lack improved sanitation, which has been defined by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program as (1) a facility, such as a flush latrine or pit latrine with a concrete slab over it, to prevent human contact with excreta, and (2) hygiene practices that help prevent the fecal-oral route of infection, such as hand washing at critical times including after using the toilet or before preparing food.
According to a recent report from Water Aid, progress toward improved sanitation lags for a few reasons. First, aid is not well-coordinated between donors. Second, political priorities have led recipient governments to allocate funding to other sectors traditionally more popular with voters, such as education, or to improve sanitation in areas with existing infrastructure rather than focusing on unserved regions. Finally, governments have not given sufficient attention to ensuring that the sanitation services that they do provide are sustainable, correctly used, and otherwise actually addressing sanitation concerns.
In light of these hurdles, world leaders and industry experts in water and sanitation gathered in New York in February 2014 to discuss how the post-2015 development agenda can better drive progress toward universal sanitation. According to Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene is “a matter of justice and opportunity” and the development community must take action.
One voice in the post-2015 sanitation debate is the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), a United Nations-based organization of individuals and groups. The WSSC aims to accelerate the availability of sanitation, hygiene, water, and waste management services to all people of the world. To further this objective, a multi-donor financing mechanism within the WSSCC, the Global Sanitation Fund (GSF), was created in 2008 to gather and direct finance toward helping poor people attain safe sanitation services and adopt good hygiene practices.
Most national or donor-supported programs to improve access to sanitation focus on subsidizing latrines, but GSF mandates that its funding recipients use a non-subsidized approach and focus on creating demand for sanitation. Most often this is done through a method called community-led total sanitation. The rationale for community-led total sanitation is that unless people understand the importance of using and maintaining hygienic latrines, they will not reap sustained benefits from them. Accordingly, community-led total sanitation programs educate community members on the importance of good hygiene practices and latrine use, rather than simply providing them with latrines – thereby avoiding some of the pitfalls other latrine-providing programs have faced, such as recipients using sanitation facilities for other purposes, like food storage.
Community-led total sanitation requires that community members analyze their sanitation conditions, decide on a plan to improve the status quo, and take action accordingly. Because they develop solutions tailored to their community and build their own latrines, people feel ownership over the project and gain skills to maintain the latrines in the future. Community ownership of the effort is essential to success; creating an environment free from the health risks of open defecation requires cooperation from the entire community.
Over the long-term, the best chance for local sanitation practices to take root is if they are consistent with national sanitation strategies. For this reason, GSF also establishes a Program Coordinating Mechanism in each country to convene government, civil society organizations, and donors to set the vision and strategy for the GSF country program.
Since 2008, GSF has used these strategies to improve access to sanitation for 2.7 million people in 11 developing countries. WSSCC and Dalberg recently worked to help GSF expand its country programs and start several new ones. As a result of this engagement, GSF anticipates that, by 2016, it will have helped 16.28 million people gain access to improved sanitation and 24.58 million people live in healthy and safe environments free from open defecation.
In other words, GSF will have made a significant contribution towards achieving the MDGs’ sanitation target if these numbers are realized. The target of universal access to sanitation and hygiene is still ambitious – but as GSF’s efforts show, with greater global aid coordination, prioritization of sanitation in national-level policy, and the continued creation of sustainable sanitation services, it can be achieved.