Right to sanitation

Context of the sanitation crisis

Children play in filthy canal water, Antananarivo, Madagascar.

WaterAid/ Brent Stirton

Over 2.6 billion persons lack access to adequate sanitation facilities, a primary cause of water contamination and diseases linked to water. Sanitation is severely neglected in most countries, by governments and by households. In many countries, the number of toilets per inhabitant is generally inadequate, with no guarantee that they are hygienic to use.

Because of the lack of sanitation at a household level (or, in many cases, at any level), many people use plastic bags, streets or other places for defecation that do not provide adequate privacy, dignity or hygiene. All sanitation facilities also require an adequate supply of safe water and soap for hand washing.

The WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) estimates that 80 percent of the world’s urban population has access to adequate sanitation, compared to only 39 percent of the rural population. However, again,the urban figures for lack of access calculated by UN-HABITAT are significantly higher than those calculated by JMP, although it is clear that the situation is generally worse in rural areas compared to urban areas. However, the health impact of lack of access to sanitation is far worse in urban areas than in rural areas, due to higher density of population.

In many parts of the world, the absence of adequate sanitation has led to the widespread pollution of water sources that communities rely on for survival. Millions of children are left malnourished, physically stunted and mentally disabled by excreta-related diseases and intestinal worm infections. The safe disposal of excreta is one of the strongest determinants of child survival. Easy access to hygienic sanitation services is also crucial to promote and protect human dignity and privacy. Despite this, sanitation lacks the political commitment necessary to ensure that all people have access to adequate sanitation services.

It is almost universally acknowledged that access to safe water is crucial in the prevention of disease. However, the importance of an accompanying wastewater disposal or drainage system is often not recognised. In areas where water is being delivered there needs to be a method of removing the wastewater to prevent stagnant water from gathering. In the absence of a sewerage system, low-cost drainage systems that prevent the accumulation of still-water are a solution to this problem. Solid waste management systems are also critical, as in their absence garbage is often deposited in drains, thus blocking them.

Sources: UN Human Development Report 2006 Beyond Scarcity, WHO & UNICEF, Meeting the MDG Drinking-Water and Sanitation Target and WHO & UNICEF, The Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000