Friday, May 9, 2014

Let’s talk openly about defecation and drinking water

Students wash their hands with soap at a school in Myanmar.
Latrines have been installed with support from UNICEF.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2012-2054/Adam Dean
By Nicholas Alipui, UNICEF’s Director of Programmes

Do you remember the scene in the hit film Slumdog Millionaire, where the little boy plunges under a pool of faeces to get to iconic Indian movie star Amitabh Bachchan? Remember that the boy had been using a shared latrine, and that the latrine dumped into a river?

It made for a great—and funny—movie moment, but unfortunately it is reality for millions of people, not just in South Asia, but around the world.


Recently, UNICEF’s six-month old ‘Take Poo to the Loo’ social media campaign against open defecation in India has received a lot of media attention. Some were admiring of its boldness, while others wondered why we chose to use a cartoon character, ‘Poo’, and a catchy tune, to deal with such a serious issue.

Indeed, access to adequate toilets is not a laughing matter.

UNICEF and the World Health Organization have just released updated figures which say 2.5 billion people – one third of the world’s population – do not have access, and 1 billion of them have to defecate in the open. Access to improved drinking water is another grave problem for the 748 million people who do not have it.

Quietly behind the headlines, UNICEF and the United Nations are trying to change this reality for the millions who, even in this second decade of the 21st Century, are being left behind in their countries’ progress.

In April, UNICEF convened a meeting at the World Bank in which leaders from more than 50 countries, both major donors and programme countries, set serious, measurable commitments for tackling the problem of water and sanitation for the people who are among the poorest and most marginalized in the world. The UN Secretary-General himself, Ban Ki-moon, opened the meeting.

Among the commitments, 17 countries pledged to end open defecation by or before 2030, and more than 20 countries pledged to have universal access to water and sanitation – that is, access for every one of their citizens – by 2030 or earlier.

There is good reason for these plans.

There is the indignity of women going out into the fields, or to the banks of ponds and rivers, to defecate, putting them at risk of rape and assault. There is the fact that women and girls bear over 70 per cent of the burden of carrying water when it is not piped to their households, spending billions of hours per year to do it.

Mostly it is about the effect on real lives; about real people – including children.

Diarrhoeal diseases linked to the lack of safe water and adequate sanitation kill more than 500,000 children under five every single year. Stunting – where a child fails to develop physically and cognitively – is linked to frequent bouts of diarrhoea. It affects more than 162 million children worldwide, and costs countries billions in lost earnings.

It doesn’t stop with these obvious links. Polio, one of the most dangerous diseases on the planet – and spreading again – is linked to faecal contamination.

But it will take more than a meeting in Washington to make a change for the people who do not have toilets and those who million who don’t have clean water.

In fact, just as the ‘Poo to Loo’ campaign is about each person’s accountability, it will take each one of us to help keep our fellow citizens, our countries, and our planet healthy.

Already, UNICEF’s Community Approach to Total Sanitation has helped some 26 million people and hundreds of communities worldwide to become open defecation free. But we need more.

What we need most is to bring the taboo subject into the open. We need as citizens of the one planet we have, to insist our governments pay attention to this issue.

Did your Minister of Finance or Water or Environment attend the Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meeting and make a pledge? Find out. Call on your government to keep its promises. And ask for more.

If you are in a country where sanitation and water is a problem and your government did NOT attend or make a promise, ask them what are their plans to address it.

In the 21st century, we all have a voice that can be amplified, especially by social media, until those in power have to listen.

This is certainly not a joke. We must meet this most important challenge of all.

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