Swiss seek to pull plug on sanitation problems

Manila shanties: 10 million Filipinos have no access to safe drinking water, while over 21 million lack basic sanitation Keystone

The United Nations has launched a campaign ahead of the International Year of Sanitation in 2008. Switzerland will lend its support by raising public awareness.

This content was published on November 22, 2007 - 12:11

The world body warned that every 20 seconds a child dies due to the lack of sanitary facilities and 40 per cent of the world's population have no access to toilets, with the poorest regions of the planet most affected.

The UN is calling for a renewed effort to improve sanitation and meet the international commitments of the Millennium Development Goals set out in 2000.

"An estimated 42,000 people die every week from diseases related to low water quality and an absence of adequate sanitation," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement on Wednesday.

Lack of clean and safe sanitation leads to diarrhoea and other diseases. It also has a particular impact on women and girls in developing countries, who can be vulnerable to attack or deterred from going to school because of a lack of proper facilities.

François Muenger, a sanitation expert from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), said that sanitation and hygiene, together with water, were part of our basic package for survival and a human right.

"Unlike say Aids, which could affect you or me, the lack of sanitation is only affecting the poor," he told swissinfo. "It's a scandal that a large part of the world's population doesn't have access to toilets and human dignity."

The UN says that by investing $10 billion (SFr11 billion) globally every year, nations could halve the number of people without basic toilet facilities by 2015. Around 2.6 billion people are currently affected by this problem.

The world body is organising regional conferences and public campaigns to raise awareness and implement projects to improve sanitation in developing countries.

Swiss campaign

Switzerland has decided to take action by contributing to the UN's global effort and at the same time is launching a national campaign.

It wants to make the Swiss public more aware of the appalling living conditions faced by one third of the planet's population.

The campaign organisers also hope to raise SFr2 million towards a global sanitation fund coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to the WHO, there is compelling evidence that sanitation brings the single greatest return on investment of any development intervention - roughly $9 for every $1 spent.

The economic cost of not investing in sanitation and clean water is estimated at $38 billion a year resulting from infant deaths, lost work days and school absences due to disease.

Historical problem

The Swiss campaign also aims to highlight the historical importance of investment in sanitation and hygiene.

Although most people in Switzerland take toilets for granted, there was a time when hygiene conditions in the country were atrocious and a permanent threat of water-borne diseases persisted.

Since the middle of the 19th century, Switzerland has invested SFr100 billion in over 750 sewage plants and 47,000 kilometres of pipes to dispose of and process sewage.

"We have invested a lot in terms of sanitation and this has been a key factor behind Switzerland's development," said Muenger, adding that still more had to be done, particularly in terms of maintaining the present infrastructure and preventing contaminations from micropollutants.

But from a global perspective, while finances are certainly an issue, the SDC expert conceded that the main obstacle to improving millions of people's lives was how high sanitation and hygiene appeared on decision makers' agendas.

"Sanitation is not a sexy topic. It's often difficult for politicians to campaign on this. And it's something that only affects the poor and they don't have the same advocacy power. We really need a campaign to highlight this issue."

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

Key facts

One of the eight Millennium Development Goals is to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.
But according to a report published by the United Nations earlier this year, 600 million people will miss the sanitation target if current trends continue.

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Millennium Development Goals (water and sanitation)

Only eastern, southeastern and western Asia, northern Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean are on track to halve the proportion of people without basic sanitation by 2015.

All other developing regions have made insufficient progress towards this target. In sub-Saharan Africa, the absolute number of people without access to sanitation actually increased – from 335 million in 1990 to 440 million people by the end of 2004. This number may increase even further if trends do not improve.

The health, economic and social repercussions of open defecation, poor hygiene and lack of safe drinking water are well documented. Together they contribute to about 88 per cent of the deaths due to diarrhoeal diseases – more than 1.5 million – in children under age five.

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