Last week, the UN called for renewed action to reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people who live without access to basic sanitation by 2015. “Sustainable Sanitation: Five-year Drive to 2015” seeks to build political will for increased investment in sanitation by raising awareness of the problems faced by 2.6 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to a proper toilet.
Sanitation-related diseases account for roughly half of all hospitalizations in the developing world. More children die of diarrhea—a preventable condition directly linked to fecal exposure—than of AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Fecal exposure also transmits debilitating neglected tropical diseases such as ringworm, hookworm, and river blindness.
This disease burden creates a massive economic impact on the developing world. The World Bank recently assessed annual economic costs of poor sanitation at $53.8 billion in India, $6.3 billion in Indonesia, and $193 million in Lao PDR, mostly due to health and environmental impacts.
These statistics are unacceptable, as is the fact that many decision-makers remain reluctant to talk about sanitation, further stigmatizing the topic and perpetuating a crisis whose solutions are within our reach.
Today, we are at a tipping point. More people than ever in the developing world lack access to a proper toilet, and our progress on expanding access to sanitation has slowed dramatically. Yet more people realize the importance of improved sanitation and more multilateral initiatives like the Drive to 2015 are underway.
By increasing public awareness and support, each of us can play an important role in strengthening the political will needed to achieve safe, healthy places for people to defecate. We need to stop treating sanitation as an unmentionable topic and start talking about realistic solutions.