WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Ministers from 44 Asian, African and Latin American countries have pledged to make faster progress in providing universal access to safe drinking water and hygienic toilets, one of the United Nations development goals at risk of being missed when they expire next year.
Toilets and clean drinking water dramatically improve health and education levels, which in turn lift a country’s economy, and yet progress on basic sanitation lags behind development goals.
About 2.5 billion people around the world still lack access to a basic toilet that does not pollute the water supply, according to updated data from a joint monitoring programme by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN children’s agency UNICEF presented at the World Bank spring meetings here on Friday.
The ministers pledged to address the problem by laying 265 ways they would provide universal access to safe drinking water and hygienic toilets. About half of them pledged to eliminate open defecation by 2025.
“All of us in this room have the power to improve the lives of billions of people around the world, ” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said in welcoming their actions.
WaterAid, a U.K.-based non-governmental organisation, said the pledges marked a “watershed” in that countries have set setting specific ways in which they will work towards meeting a United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of cutting in half by 2015 the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
“What that means is that business as usual will not be enough, and they will need to be a huge step-change in the rates of progress and investment -- in sanitation and hygiene in particular,” said Tom Slaymaker, deputy head of policy at WaterAid.
While the goal on safe drinking water was met ahead of schedule in 2010, many countries in the developing world are at risk of missing the sanitation target by next year, when the MDGs will be replaced by a new set of development goals.
“It is the most lagging of the goals,” said Jan Eliasson, UN deputy secretary-general.
Some progress has been made, with the number of people with decent toilets increasing by 21 percentage points in the developing world since 1990.
India has the largest number of people who relieve themselves outdoors, but the pace of improvement is slowest in sub-Sahara Africa and at current rates it would take 150 years to meet the target, the new WHO/UNICEF data showed.
“More people have cellphones than toilets in Africa,” said Shanta Deverajan, chief economist at the World Bank as he called for higher levels of investment in sanitation.
Clean drinking water reduces incidents of diarrhoea, a major health problem that contributes to malnutrition and underweight children who in turn under-perform in school, officials said. Unsanitary toilets that pollute the water supply are a major problem for water supplies.
Additionally, sanitation and access to clean drinking water is a gender issue. Women can spend hours each day collecting water, and water routes are a location where young girls frequently are attacked and raped.
A lack of decent toilets in schools discourages girls from continuing their education when they begin menstruation, according to development agencies.
Friday's ministerial meeting in Washington was the third since 2010 to agree on ways to accelerate progress towards meeting the water and sanitation goals.