Over 60 per cent of Africans lack access to a proper toilet, according to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). This grim assessment was made ahead of World Water Day - observed last weekend on 22 March - whose 2008 theme is “Sanitation Matters.”
The Day aims to raise awareness to the plight of 2.6 billion people worldwide who live without toilets in their homes and are therefore vulnerable to numerous health risks.
Contamination of water, soil and food results from the human contact with the bacteria, viruses and parasites, which in turn cause diarrhoea, the second largest killer of children in developing countries.
”Sanitation is a cornerstone of public health,” said Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “Improved sanitation contributes enormously to human health and wellbeing, especially for girls and women.”
Of the 2.6 billion people without toilets in their homes, nearly 1 billion of them are children. The two agencies approximate that 1.2 billion people gained access to improved sanitation between 1990 and 2004, but at the current rate, 2.4 billion people will still be without basic sanitation in 2015.
”The absence of adequate sanitation has a serious impact on health and social development, especially for children,” Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director, pointed out.
She noted that enhanced support for improving sanitation will save lives and speed up progress towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight anti-poverty objectives with a target date of 2015.
Pollution generated by sewage, much of which ends up in coastal waters, leads an economic loss of $16 billion annually and is estimated to cause four million lost “man-years” yearly in terms of human ill-health, said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in a message for the Day. ”In many developed countries, part of the answer over the past half century has been found in ever more sophisticated, multi-million dollar water treatment works.”
But as projects such as one at the Shimo la Tewa jail in Mombasa, a city on the Kenyan coast, highlight that there are less costly solutions to the problem that are beneficial for other reasons, Mr. Steiner noted.
In this project, inmates work with nature to neutralize human wastes by using wetland-filtered water, called “black wastewater,” for irrigation and fish farming, providing a source of protein which can be consumed or sold to local markets.
Additionally, this wastewater - containing high concentrations of human waste - will also be used to produced biogas, which can be serve as fuel for cooking, heating and lighting. This could slash the costs of the 4,000-person prison and curb emissions.
The scheme in Mombasa, which is also expected to help wildlife such as birds and marine organisms, has a price tag of $25 per person served, which is significantly less than projects in developed countries, the Executive Director said.
”It is hoped that the lessons learn can be applied to other parts of the world so that the multiple challenges of sanitation and pollution can, in part, be viewed through a nature-based lens,” he observed.
”Working with nature rather than against it is part of that intelligent decision-making that may prove a faster, more cost-effective and more economically attractive way of achieving local and international health and poverty goals.”
Events marking World Water Day will be held globally, in places ranging from Bangladesh to Ecuador, and from Guyana to Senegal.
In New York today, UNICEF and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) are attempting to break the record for the longest toilet line to raise awareness about the global sanitation crisis.