Monday, July 7, 2008

Sanitation: The Unsung Killer

This week at the G8 summit in Hokkaido Japan, WaterAid, launched a report on sanitation. The report presents evidence that suggests sanitation may be the biggest killer of children in the world and yet it is the most neglected development sector. The hope is that this report will remind the world’s wealthiest and most powerful that without addressing sanitation all other development efforts will be undermined. In Africa, not just health, but also education and economic growth are all held back by governments' neglect of water and sanitation.

It seems ironic to be discussing sanitation at a luxury resort hotel in Japan, a country where toilets have electronic sensors and heated seats. It's a different planet, light years away from the 2.6 billion people who still have no access to even basic sanitation.

In 2002, an MDG target to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to sanitation was agreed by the UN for achievement by 2015. The WaterAid report suggests that the sanitation sector is in crisis. The report indicates that 40% of the world's population lack access to even basic sanitation. At the current rate of 'progress' this global target will not be met, and in sub-Saharan Africa it will not be reached until 2076, 61 years too late.

It is clear that that investing in hygiene and sanitation offers the greatest public health returns of any development intervention. For instance investments in sanitation will bring massive gains to other areas of development too; more girls in school, less money spent on treating diarrheal diseases, more resources in hospitals to deal with other health issues.

The WaterAid report claims that poor sanitation kills more children than HIV/Aids, Malaria and Measles combined yet it remains neglected. Most donor and aid-receiving governments in developing countries have no clue about how much they spend on water and sanitation. The report asserts that lack of investment in sanitation reveals a blind spot in development policy: a failure to recognize sanitation’s integral role in reducing poverty.

The report concludes that sanitation is the single most cost-effective major public health intervention to reduce child mortality and will accelerate progress and reinforce investments in other MDG targets and goals.

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