Time to wake up to the sewage crisis
Approximately 2.6 billion people i.e. about 40% of their world's population live without access to adequate sanitation.
Credit: WaterAid / Abir Abdullah
As published in The Telegraph online, 21 January 2008
While carbon emissions are now rightly lodged at the forefront ofmost people's minds, I'm constantly dismayed at how few mentionsanother urgent global environmental crisis is getting. There is a majorstink out there.
It's not a glamorous issue, far from it. In fact it's a bit of ataboo subject. But it's an issue we need to start talking about becauseit's causing extensive environmental damage and leading to the deathsof 5,000 infants every day.
It's a problem of disposal of human waste and toilets. Or rather the lack of good sanitation and toilets.
Levels ofsuspended solids in Asia's rivers have almost quadrupled since the late1970's, and indicators show sewage levels in Asia's rivers are 50 timeshigher than the WHO guidelines.
Roughly 2.6 billion people - 40% of their world's population - livewithout access to adequate sanitation. Their excrement pollutes urbanand rural environments, contaminates drinking water supplies withdeadly diarrheal diseases, reduces oxygen levels in rivers so thatplant and animal life dies and causes sewage to build up along coastalfringes.
Wherever I travel in the developing world I meet people who sufferas a result. And it goes without saying it's the poorest people whosuffer the most.
People like Bundaa Joseph from the Tabora Region of Tanzania. Justten years old, Joseph visits a muddy pool every day to fetch water forhis family. Due to a lack of sanitation this source is contaminatedwith raw sewage, as Joseph knows: "I'm not happy to use this water.Some people use it like a toilet."
Even those who have a toilet at home can contribute to extensivepollution if their municipal authorities discharge untreated wastewaterand sewage into rivers or seas, as all too many do.
As populations grow, so does the amount of sewage. Levels ofsuspended solids in Asia's rivers have almost quadrupled since the late1970's, and indicators show sewage levels in Asia's rivers are 50 timeshigher than the WHO guidelines.
The 'sewage crisis' is inextricably intertwined with the world'sfreshwater crisis. As climate change affects rainfall patterns anddepletes water tables, the amount of water available is dwindling inmany areas, a problem exacerbated by increased competition for it fromgrowing populations, agriculture and industry.
It's an untenable situation for the international community tocontinue to stand by and watch as precious freshwater ecosystems andmarine environments are polluted in a way that is easily avoided.
So what's happening to rectify the situation? The answer, sadly, is not nearly enough.
At the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002,a Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target was agreed to halve by 2015the proportion of people without sanitation.
The price tag for solving the problem - estimated at an additional$10bn a year to achieve the MDG target - is about a third of the costsit imposes in healthcare and lost productivity alone. And it's aninvestment estimated to bring returns of about $9 for each $1 invested.
Yet despite the MDG framework and the economic argument, when itcomes to sanitation, mostly what we hear from the world'sdecision-makers is deafening silence.
If current trends of investment in this forgotten and marginalizedsector persist the MDG target will be missed by half a billion people.
To help wake the international community up to the severity of thesituation, the UN has declared 2008 as the International Year ofSanitation with the aim of trying to get the MDG target back on track.
At WaterAid we are fully backing the Year. We'll be using everyopportunity possible to demonstrate that establishing safe sanitationneed not be an expensive business. It doesn't have to involve theconstruction of miles of sewers and sophisticated sewage treatmentworks.
As long as care is taken to build them above the water table, simplepit latrines that cost just a few pounds, and sometimes pence, areperfectly adequate for the disposal of human excreta. All that isneeded is an adequately sealed space where excreta can safelydecompose, coupled with hygiene education to ensure that communitiesunderstand the importance of using them safely.
As well as preventing pollution some low-cost sanitation solutionsactively benefit the environment, as WaterAid's widespread use ofcomposting latrines demonstrates. These latrines, which break downhuman waste to produce a rich, environmentally friendly fertilizer thatcan naturally boost agricultural yields.
Rideana Juma from the rural village of Kitayita in the WakisoDistrict of Uganda is very pleased with her new composting loo. Itmeans her family's excrement no longer pollutes the nearby spring whenthe rains come. And it has other benefits for her too:
"The soil around the compound is clean. We can use the products ofthe latrine for composting. I hope to use the products to help growbananas and coffee which I will be able to sell. Now I have thesefacilities I feel more privacy as a lady."
The chief barrier to progress in building and using latrines such asJuma's isn't the cost of the toilets themselves: it's lack of knowledgeamongst poor communities on the connection between poor sanitation anddisease and how to build latrines.
WaterAid's Community Led Total Sanitation initiatives have shownthat when communities learn about the link and calculate how much poorsanitation is costing them in medical bills and lost productivity, theyare more than happy to make the modest investment in a basic loothemselves. They know they'll see the money back soon enough.
In the rural Rajshahi district of Bangladesh even the kids are nowloudly singing the praises of improved sanitation. "The environment isclean so we can go and play, skipping and running. I feel bad for othervillages," said 10-year-old Monira from the village of Laloich.
The main barrier to progress is a lack of political will amongstdonors and governments to investing in improving communities' knowledgeon sanitation.
The End Water Poverty coalition, of which WaterAid is a foundingmember, is calling for a global action plan on sanitation, a globaltaskforce to oversee it and commitments to finance these. The G8 summitin Japan in July is the next big milestone in the internationalcommunity's decision-making calendar. Let's hope they sit up and listento these calls.
It is time for action to address the stink and to improve health, dignity and respect for all those without toilets.
By Barbara Frost, Chief Executive, WaterAid