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Sustainable drinking water and sanitation

Margriet Samwel-Mantingh | 20 March 2013

Sustainable development goals should pay more attention to sanitation, gender and rural areas.

Internationally, there is a growing recognition of the human rights dimension of access to safe drinking water and sanitation. In July 2010 the United Nations General Assembly recognised the human right on access to safe drinking water and sanitation. The independent expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation identified 5 normative criteria: availability, accessibility, quality/safety, affordability, availability and acceptability. All of these criteria have to be met for the full realisation of the human right to access to sanitation and water. In addition the independent expert formulated 5 cross-cutting criteria: non-discrimination, participation, accountability and acceptability. In order to be good practice from a human rights perspective, all these cross-cutting criteria have to be met to some degree and at the very least, practice must not undermine or contradict these criteria.

In 2012 the UNICEF/WHO reported that the MDG drinking water target had been met and the coverage increased from 79 per cent in 1990 to 89 per cent in 2010. In the same period sanitation coverage increased from 49 per cent on 1990 to 63 per cent in 2010. If current trends continue, however, the world will not meet the MDG sanitation target.

Huge disparities in the coverage of water and sanitation are observed between rural and urban areas: 84 per cent of the population without access to improved water live in rural areas; the poorest people have the lowest levels of water and sanitation services, and poor women living in rural areas are disproportionately affected. Despite this, only two thirds of ODA finances were spent in the rural areas. Although progress has been made, it has to be taken in consideration that the MDG 2000 does not cover, for example, the quality, safety, quality or accessibility of drinking water and sanitation facilities. 

The Post-2015 MDGs should focus on rural areas and slums for WASH policies, including in schools. 

Up to now the issue of sanitation has been given low political priority by governments and in national legal systems. Achieving adequate sanitation is perceived as expensive, since conventional sanitation is often more costly than establishing a drinking water supply. Sanitation projects are also not as appealing as drinking water projects. The GLAAS-2012 report compared expenditures on sanitation with those on water. The 13 countries that were able to provide data for the report indicated that 27% of the total WASH funds were spent on sanitation. Those countries have approximately 990 million people who do not have access to improved sanitation. Lacking proper sanitation is closely connected with a lack of school sanitation and is a question of children´s health and dignity. However, also the issue of school sanitation is neglected in many countries and in the MDG 2000. Due to lack of privacy and proper hygienic conditions, girls in particular drop out of the school system. This is not only related to inadequate financial resources, but also due to a lack of awareness on how important school sanitation is, especially for girls. WASH should be prioritised in national laws and conventions on human rights and gender, and women´s leadership should be strengthened in decision-making, planning, implementation, and monitoring. 

In the Post 2015 MDGs more attention should be paid to the implementation of sustainable and affordable sanitation, including safe storage, transport, disposal and/or reuse of human excreta.

Hygiene, water pollution prevention and control measures are essential for improving water quality. In many cases, water pollution is human-made and can therefore be minimised through increased education and awareness. In particular, microbiological (bacteria viruses) pollution poses a threat to health, increasing the risk of intestinal diseases (helminths, diarrhoeas) or hepatitis A, caused by inadequate hygiene, unsafe storage and treatment of human excreta. 

The principles of sustainable sanitation include the key aspect of sanitising the faecal matter, and closing the loop of nutrients/ wastewater. One way to achieve the recycling of nutrients from sanitation systems to agricultural land is to use sewage sludge and treated effluents from wastewater treatment plants as fertilisers. Sustainable sanitation technologies exist from low to high tech, with low tech solutions available at low cost, which help the need for poverty reduction. The WHO has issued guidelines for the safe reuse of human excreta in agriculture that are applicable on a global level.

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About the author

Margriet Samwel-Mantingh

Margriet Samwel-Mantingh is WECFs senior specialist for Water and Food Safety.

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