‘Talking dirty’ can save lives

Although 2.6 billion people in the world — two-thirds of whom are in southern or eastern Asia — are living without access to basic sanitation, the issue has been a poor cousin to water supply in terms of visibility and financing. However, efforts are now on to reverse this neglect. Tuesday, the second day of the 1st Asia-Pacific Water Summit being held here in Beppu, Japan, saw the regional launch of the International Year of Sanitation (IYS) 2008. Set up by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006, IYS will help accelerate progress on sanitation by putting the spotlight on the “silent crisis”.

Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC)’s governor Koji Tanami reminded conference delegates of the sobering fact that 4,500 children die every day because of diarrhoeal and other diseases caused by a lack of proper sanitation. Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, chairperson of the UN Secretary General’s advisory board on water and sanitation, said the IYS could lead to positive results, much like what had been done regarding the all-pervasive issue of HIV-AIDS.

“The AIDS pandemic has led to frank talk about unprotected sex and the use of condoms,” he said. “It is our responsibility to use the IYS to promote the same sort of open discussion about hygiene and the safe disposal of human excreta.” Success stories in the Asia-Pacific region show that it is possible to achieve sanitation goals given the right political and financial support.

“In India, I saw the positive results of the Total Sanitation Campaign, a good example of social innovation implemented by the Indian government,” he said. “Bangladesh is now also implementing this comprehensive sanitation campaign that combines community pressure and government rewards.” Clarissa Brocklehurst, coordinator of the UN Water Task Force on Sanitation, asserted that achieving the MDG target to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015 was not as difficult as it seemed.

“Countries such as Vietnam are well on the way to reaching the MDG goals even before 2015,” she remarked. But a number of countries in Central Asia still had a long way to go, she said. “An investment of $10 billion per year until 2015 would achieve the MDG sanitation goals.

The same level of investment could achieve basic sanitation for the entire world within a few decades,” she pointed out. According to the UN, more than one billion people worldwide have gained access to improved sanitation in the past 14 years, with the global sanitation coverage having increased from 49 per cent to 59 per cent between 1990 and 2004.

Brocklehurst drew attention to the fact that simple subsidisation was not enough to lure the poor to build toilets. “We need to create supporting policies, develop low cost options, mobilise communities and even involve the private sector,” she said.

Japan’s role in striving to improve the water and sanitation facilities of its neighbours through official development assistance (ODA) and other forms of financial and technical aid was highlighted by the JBIC as well as by Japan’s Vice Minister of the Environment, Masayoshi Namiki. Namiki said Japan has designed a special septic system for the treatment of domestic waste that could be applied to other Asian countries. — IPS