Sanitation Year highlights success - and failure

Posted: 9 January 2008

Homes in Aceh, Indonesia, destroyed in the tsunami in December 2004 have been replaced by better houses with proper sanitation. Much more progress like this is needed in this International Year of Sanitation.

Mega's new house near Banda Aceh has proper sanitation
Mega's new house near Banda Aceh has proper sanitation
Mega's new house at Lamkruet, near Banda Aceh, is equipped with an environmentally friendly sanitation system. Photo © UNICEF Indonesia/2007/Stechert
If you ask Mega where her original house was located, she points to the ground under her feet. "You are standing on it," she says. Mega's house, like most of the homes in her community, was destroyed during the earthquakes and tsunami that struck this coastal region on 26 December 2004.

Mega's father and two of her brothers were lost in the tsunami. The rest of the family stayed in nearby barracks for a year after their house was washed away. Since last year, however, Mega, her mother and her younger brother have returned to their village, Lamkruet, on the outskirts of the city of Banda Aceh. The family's new house is equipped with an environmentally friendly sanitation system.

In 2004, 42 per cent of the world's population - 2.6 billion people - were without improved sanitation facilities. Lack of sanitation, along with poor hygiene and unsafe drinking water, contributes to the deaths, from diarrhoeal diseases, of more than 1.5 million children each year.

International Year of Sanitation logo
International Year of Sanitation logo
Although sanitation coverage has increased in recent years, the rate of progress is not sufficient to meet the target set by the Millennium Development Goals.

Now the International Year of Sanitation 2008 aims to highlight the need for urgent action on behalf of the more than 40 per cent of the world's population who continue to live without improved sanitation.

Keeping clean and growing green

In 274 newly constructed homes in Lamkruet, septic tanks were installed to provide a receptacle for waste and prevent it from leaking into the groundwater, which is often used as a source of drinking water. The waste water from the septic tanks is filtered and used to fertilize plants and flowers.

Solid waste disposal facilities were constructed in Lamkruet as well. Garbage is collected from each house three times a week in return for a small fee. At the new waste facility outside the village, organic waste is composted, inorganic waste is separated for recycling and non-recyclable waste is collected. This reduces the volume of waste dumped in the city landfill by over 60 per cent.

"This household-level solution for the liquid and solid waste is both safe for the environment and, most importantly, safe for the residents' health," says UNICEF's Project Officer for water and environmental sanitation in Banda Aceh, Dara Johnston.

Lack of proper sanitation contributes to the deaths of thousands of women and children every day from largely preventable causes, including diarrhoeal diseases. This is one of the single biggest development challenges facing the world today.

The International Year of Sanitation 2008 was established by the United Nations General Assembly to accelerate progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goal target of reducing by half the proportion of people living without access to improved sanitation by 2015. In addition, progress on sanitation will contribute to the achievement of all the Millennium Development Goals.

Washing hands: schoolchildren in Vietnam
Washing hands: schoolchildren in Vietnam
Hand-washing prevents sickness: schoolchildren in Vietnam. Photo © UNICEF/HQ99-0812/Lemoyne
In a report just published, WHO estimates that the sanitation component of the MDG sanitation target has "a projected shortfall of 550 million people in 2015 from target achievement."

The report says that the spending required in developing countries on new coverage to meet the MDG target is US$ 42 billion for water and US$ 142 billion for sanitation, a combined annual equivalent of US$ 18 billion, and that the cost of maintaining existing services totals an additional US$ 322 billion for water supply and US $216 billion for sanitation, a combined annual equivalent of US$ 54 billion.

Improved sanitation includes clean, safe toilets, wastewater management and hygiene promotion, all of which prevent the transfer of pathogens in human excreta. When not treated safely, it adversely impacts health, often deprives children of getting an education, and impedes social and economic development.

Source of absenteeism and abuse

Lack of improved sanitation in schools is an important underlying factor in absenteeism and poor classroom performance due to illness, low enrolment and early school dropout, especially for girls whose parents may remove them from the education system when they start menstruating.

Lack of toilets exposes women and girls to violence and abuse as some are only able to defecate only after nightfall and in secluded areas.

Proper sanitation, including handwashing with soap, averts the spread of diarrhoeal disease, which is the second biggest killer of children under five. Improving sanitation leads to improved health, dignity, social and economic development, protects the environment and helps people break the cycle of poverty.