21 March 2013
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Deputy Secretary-General to Launch Call for Action

on Sanitation Ahead of World Water Day

Defecating in the open is a fact of life for 1.1 billion people on the planet, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said at Headquarters today.

“Imagine the lack of dignity around this act, the risks of being raped if you’re a woman or a girl going out at night, and the health risks, both personal and, of course, for the environment,” he said at a press conference to launch a call for action on sanitation ahead of World Water Day, which will be observed tomorrow.

Calling for urgent action to end the crisis of 2.5 billion people living without basic sanitation — or 37 per cent of the world’s population — and 780 million still lacking access to water, he said ending open defecation was key to fighting poverty and disease while pursuing attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.  The call to action aimed to focus on improving hygiene, changing social norms, better managing human waste and wastewater, and completely eliminating, by 2025, open defecation, which perpetuated the vicious cycle of disease and poverty, he added.  The renewed focus would generate action at the community level by engaging community leaders, schools, local institutions and citizens, with support from Government leaders and international organizations.  Civil society and advocacy groups would also be instrumental.

Accompanying Mr. Eliasson were Csaba Körösi, Permanent Representative of Hungary; Martin Mogwanja, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); and Kate Norgrove, Head of Campaigns for WaterAid.

Mr. Mogwanja said UNICEF was redoubling its efforts on sanitation because it was fundamental to health, especially children’s health.  Open defecation was one of the main causes of diarrhoea.  “Today diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases will kill nearly 3,000 children and tomorrow they will kill another 3,000,” he said.  “In fact, diarrhoea is the second largest killer of children under five in the developing world, and this is caused largely by poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene.”

Cases of diarrhoea could be reduced by a third in children under the age of five years simply by expanding community access to sanitation and eliminating open defecation.  It was no surprise that the world’s poorest communities were those who had inadequate or no access to proper sanitation, he said, adding that it was common sense to reach out to the most disadvantaged.  The countries where open defecation was most widely practiced were the same countries with the highest numbers of under-five child deaths, high levels of under-nutrition and poverty, and large wealth disparities.

He said that while in Pakistan, he had witnessed the impact of open defecation in both a humanitarian and a development context.  Working with non-governmental organizations and Government partners, he had developed a sanitation project in a flood-affected area.  In less than two years, more than 6 million people had gained access to toilets, he said.  The effort had succeeded by getting people to recognize and talk about the problem, since subjects such as defecation, sanitation and hygiene had stigma attached to them.  The private sector had played an important part in that transformation by engaging in sanitation marketing activities and developing a supply chain to ensure that people had access to the right products, at the right place, at the right time.  As a result children were visibly healthier and fewer were dying.  Better sanitation also enhanced the safety of women and girls, who were often targeted when alone outdoors.

Echoing that sentiment, Ms. Norgrove said women were more vulnerable to violence when they went outside to relieve themselves.  Moreover, the absence of private toilets in schools was a major impediment to the education of girls.  “I used to work as a teacher in a rural village in Nepal,” she said.  “There was one toilet for the whole school — a little broken-down shack that sat directly above the school playground in full visibility of everybody around,” she added.  “I’d avoid using that toilet if I could help it, and I remember very clearly that the girls I taught would gradually drop out of school as they reached pre-puberty.”  Providing safe, private toilets would help girls stay in school, which would in turn increase their future earnings and help break the cycle of poverty.  It was important to see sanitation as a driver, and not just an outcome, of development, she emphasized.

According to United Nations figures a single dollar spent on sanitation brings a $5.50 return by keeping people healthy and productive.  Global economic gains from investing in sanitation and water amount to an estimated $260 billion annually.  Poor sanitation, on the other hand, costs countries millions and even billions dollars a year — $448 million in Cambodia, $3 billion in Nigeria, $4.2 billion in Pakistan and $53.8 billion in India — which resulted in the deaths of more than 750,000 children under the age of five each year.

Asked about the lack of education in heavily populated urban areas, Mr. Eliasson said various actors must be mobilized to focus on clean water, sanitation and hygiene, known as WASH.

Mr. Körösi added that a number of civil society organizations were working to develop new methods of educating populations.

Mr. Mogwanja urged better promotion of appropriate technology such as toilets that flushed without water.

When asked whether sanitation lagged the furthest of all the Millennium Development Goals due to the associated stigma, Mr. Eliasson said there was definitely an element of taboo.  Women were often the ones to stay behind and take care of the ill, or themselves if they had diarrhoea.  Girls also stayed home during menstruation, which contributed to the taboo and the lack of conversation about sanitation.  Taboos were less complicated to handle in rural communities, where education programmes could be implemented in schools.  Heavily populated urban populations were more challenging because they created big slums outside cities where it was difficult to establish sanitary conditions.  Lack of municipality tax also contributed to a lack of accountability, he added.

Ms. Norgrove said it was no coincidence that a lack of sanitation affected women and girls so heavily, and stressed the importance of education as a key factor in ensuring health and lifting people out of poverty.

Asked what concrete action would be taken, Mr. Eliasson said the renewed call to action would mean a higher priority within the United Nations system, in addition to sending a message to Member States that investing in sanitation and infrastructure was an investment in health.  He recalled having recently met a great number of finance ministers and having brought up the case for sanitation and water.  Involving everyone was important, he emphasized.  “Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something.”

Mr. Körösi said countries in which defecating in the open was a problem often had regulations on clean water but not on sanitation.  Investing in water and sanitation must be seen as related goals, he stressed.

Asked what role Governments would play in spearheading education reform, Mr. Eliasson said they would play an integral part in promoting community outreach and educational programmes.  Achieving the water and sanitation Millennium Goal would have a positive impact on the development targets relating to maternal health, equality, education, extreme poverty and child mortality.  Few interventions would have a greater impact than addressing the health problems caused by poor sanitation and hygiene, he said, adding that it was a way to rid people of their sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

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For information media • not an official record