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Toilet-talk taboo hinders sanitation crisis fight - expert

by Julie Mollins | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 17 November 2011 18:59 GMT

The global sanitation crisis - which kills thousands every day - needs a fresh approach, experts say

LONDON (AlertNet) - More toilet talk in public and creative “out of the box” approaches are needed to help solve the global sanitation crisis which kills thousands of children every day, an expert at the Stockholm Environment Institute said.

As the 11th anniversary of World Toilet Day approaches on Nov. 19, across the globe one billion people lack clean drinking water and 2.6 billion live without access to hygienic sanitation facilities. Each day, an average of 5,000 children die of preventable water and sanitation related diseases, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Part of the problem is that toilets and sanitation are considered distasteful to discuss, Arno Rosemarin, senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) EcoSanRes (ecological sanitation research) programme, told AlertNet.

“The average person has difficulty discussing the topic and this will remain so without a doubt – without the public dialogue, sanitation will remain dysfunctional, undeveloped and underfunded in most of the world,” he said.

Finding a solution to the global sanitation crisis calls for a creative “out of the box” approach, according to Rosemarin. 

At the current rate of progress in tackling the crisis, the world will miss its 2015 Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the number of people without access to basic sanitation, UNDP said. 

The MDGs are eight measurable targets set by the United Nations in 2010 to try and alleviate global poverty. Sanitation remains the most off-track of all the MDGs. 

Rosemarin, whose work with EcoSanRes involves promoting the use of human faeces and urine as compost materials in farming, said that better integration of the so-called water, energy and food security “nexus” will result in better development and marketing of sanitation. 

“There’s a lot to be gained in many parts of the world by pulling these together, not only to deal with the climate change challenge, but also water problems,” he said. 

“We don’t have enough water, we have dirty water, and we don’t have enough food in many parts of the world - sanitation is a neglected sector overlapping a lot of these components.” 

Currently, 700 million people in 50 countries eat crops irrigated with untreated sewage which can spread disease. But, with safe sanitation, nutrients and water from sewage treatment plants could be used to grow food, he said. One person’s excreta are enough to fertilise up to 400 square metres of crops, Rosemarin said.

Sewage sludge can be used to produce energy – it can be fermented into biogas. 

Poor sanitation also creates dirty drinking water. About 2.4 billion people need to boil drinking water and most of them use firewood, killing a lot of trees in the process, Rosemarin said.

Open defecation is considered the bottom rung on “the sanitation ladder”, Alastair Morrison, programme manager at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) Water Governance Facility, said. 

“You start at the bottom with open defecation, where there are dignity and safety issues – it’s very unhygienic because of cross-contamination – kids play in it, when it rains it gets washed into people’s houses, there are flies everywhere." 

UNDP is aiming to ensure each family has its own ventilated improved pit latrine (VIP)  which offers privacy, improves cleanliness, and reduces the number of flies. 

A vent at the top of the VIP attracts and traps flies to prevent the spread of disease. It also serves as ventilation to combat lingering smells that can cause people to resort to open defecation. 

More basic latrines are often abandoned once they fill up and there is no way to clean and maintain them properly. 

Several agencies are trying to address this problem. Water for People, an international non-governmental organisation (NGO), works to help develop private sector enterprises that can build and clean latrines. Its goal is to try and improve investment in local businesses that can build and maintain toilets for profit, rather than rely on NGO and government investment.

VIDEO: Sustainable sanitation supplants chemical fertiliser with human waste - Arno Rosemarin


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