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'Sanitation is becoming a social movement'

Feb 18, 2009

Despite its critical role in building a healthy nation, there has not been enough investment in improving sanitation standards across the world, feels Therese Dooley, UNICEF sanitation advisor. In an interview to IPS, she makes a strong case for galvanising efforts at all levels to create awareness on hygiene.

While 2008 - declared by the UN as the "International Year of Sanitation" - came and went with 2.6 billion people, including almost one billion children, still living without basic facilities, UNICEF's sanitation and hygiene senior advisor, Therese Dooley, says there is reason for hope.

Therese Dooley.jpg

Hundreds of organisations are now working alongside governments and UN agencies to build safe, hygienic waste disposal systems, as well as to change cultural norms so that dangerous practices like open defecation are abandoned in the poorest communities.

"It is almost like a social movement. It is about everybody working together,” she said in an interview with IPS correspondent Nergui Manalsuren at UNICEF headquarters in New York.

Here are the excerpts:

IPS: According to recent UN statistics, every 20 seconds, a child dies as a result of a poor sanitation. That's 1.5 million preventable deaths each year. How does UNICEF hope to help resolve this global problem?

Therese Dooley: Sanitation is a huge issue for children. On the ground, we've got water, sanitation and hygiene projects in about 96 countries at the moment operational. I'm going to speak specifically on sanitation and hygiene because you can't distinguish sanitation from hygiene - because even by building toilets and latrines, they have to be properly used, so that's when the hygiene component comes in. And, indeed, hand washing by soap after using the toilet is critical because (not doing so) is responsible for about 44% of diarrhoea diseases.

Some of our great successes is Community-Led Total Sanitation. It's basically following a model where communities work for themselves to improve their own sanitation. We're moving away from the idea of subsidised individual latrines that may or may not be sustainable. We're getting exceedingly positive results in Asia and in Africa.

For example, it was introduced in Zambia a year ago, in 12 communities to start with. It's not about demonstrating shame to the community, it's about pride, and it's about the community wanting to have a clean, open defecation-free environment.

Within three months, all 12 communities declared themselves open defecation-free. And, the figures now are about 100 open defecation-free communities in Zambia. It's not just Zambia; it is Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Cambodia.

IPS: How did the International Year of Sanitation help to spotlight the problems of sanitation, mostly in the developing world?

TD: The International Year of Sanitation had many achievements. The overall aim was to increase awareness among a number of different target groups. Primarily we were looking at influencing aid administration, governments, and implementers, but also the general public. We are currently evaluating the reports but the preliminary results were really positive.

So, in some countries sanitation policies were put in place, others started looking at strategies, or the development of standards for sanitation. In some countries it meant an increased the budget allocation made by government.

We also looked at multilateral and bilateral donors - have they done anything special for sanitation? Have they increased their budget allocations? I think all in all, the proof will come in the next six to eight months. I don't think the year is over, I think the year has just started for sanitation.

IPS: Are there any estimates of how much funding is needed to provide adequate sanitation to the 2.6 billion people suffering from the lack of it? How much of this funding is available now?

TD: There's huge difference in opinion because in some cases you have much higher investments needed for urban infrastructure if you like large-scale sewage systems versus rural. But you have to do both. And, the issue is how much then is needed for ongoing maintenance and repair.

How much is currently invested is a very difficult question to answer and how much more is needed. Because one of the problems with sanitation is that it doesn't have its own ministry, or its own investment line. It can be split across the ministry of environment, ministry of urban development, ministry of rural development and ministry of health.

But the reality is there's still not enough investment in sanitation. We're not coming near anywhere what is needed.

IPS: Are developing countries themselves doing enough to help resolve the problem? What are the success stories in the developing world?

TD: There are countries that have really achieved such tremendous coverage. Like Malawi and Sri Lanka have practically got full coverage. If you look at the map, you see that we're not going to achieve MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), but then you've got these jewels in the middle of that map who basically are doing very well and achieving success.

I think what you've got to look at is the statistics showing us that people may not be achieving the MDG but they are moving up by the ladder of success.

The International Year of Sanitation has given us motivation and encouragement to do something, and the whole thing now is not to let it stop. And, to keep working with our colleagues and governments in developing world not only to achieve the MDG on water and sanitation, but to get best results for other MDGs.

Because, sanitation affects girls, it affects schooling, health, and economy. Improving sanitation has so many benefits, but because it's so basic, people tend to forget about it.

IPS: What role does the private sector and NGOs have in sanitation? The World Toilet Association (WTA) in Korea is currently funding sanitation projects in several developing nations, including Ghana, South Africa, Cameroon, Mongolia, Indonesia and Laos. What are your thoughts on this? And does UNICEF work with NGOs on the ground?

TD: The role of NGOs and private sector is absolutely enormous in this whole process. UNICEF works with governments and through other partners: NGOs, private sector, community-based organisations, faith-based organisations.

I think it is almost like a social movement, therefore, the role of NGOs is very important. So, we definitely work with many of them. The WTA is one of hundreds of NGOs actively working on sanitation, and without NGOs and community-based organisations and people who are working on the ground, we can't do sanitation alone. It is about everybody working together.

Source : IPS
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