Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Next UN development goals must tackle open defecation -expert

by Julie Mollins | @jmollins | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 18 September 2012 17:11 GMT

The absolute number of people defecating in the open has stayed the same for several years, a U.N. study says

(Contains offensive language in paragraph 15)

LONDON (AlertNet) – Experts have crafted tentative development goals to improve sanitation for the 1.1 billion people who are forced to practise open defecation due to poor water supplies, a lack of toilets and absent sewage systems.

A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, says at least 15 percent of the world's population regularly defecates in fields, forests, bushes, bodies of water or other open spaces, putting health at risk.

The combined effects of improper sanitation, unsafe water supply and poor personal hygiene are responsible for 88 percent of childhood deaths from diarrhoea and are estimated to cause more than 3,000 child deaths per day, UNICEF says.

It is a problem sanitation experts are hoping will be properly addressed in the next set of global development targets to replace the current U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015

One goal could be to eradicate open defecation by 2030, says Clarissa Brocklehurst, a consultant for a working group tasked with establishing sanitation targets for 2015 and beyond.

"One of the reasons why I'm so keen on an open-defecation goal is because it is achievable," said Brocklehurst of the Sanitation Working Group with the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) led by WHO and UNICEF.

"If you had a big country like India say, 'We will eliminate open defecation in the next 15 to 25 years', the number of children's lives that would save would be just astronomical."


Although the proportion of people who defecate in the open is actually decreasing, due to population growth, the absolute number has stayed the same for several years, the U.N. study said. Overall, some 2.5 billion people do not have proper sanitation facilities, almost three-quarters of them living in rural areas.

Open defecation is still practised by a majority of the rural population in 19 countries, the report said. Nearly 60 percent of those practising open defecation - 626 million people - live in India. Indonesia ranks second with 63 million defecating in the open and Pakistan third with 40 million.

"A lot of people practise open defecation as the default behaviour," Brocklehurst told AlertNet.

"I'm not saying they like it, but in order to get people to understand why they should abandon open defecation – the toll it's taking on their health, their children's health and to make the investments necessary to pull themselves out of open defecation – that's a big job."

Brocklehurst, who presented the JMP hypothetical sanitation targets at World Water Week in Stockholm last month, said the other tentative goals included: ensuring that 80 percent of the poorest quintile, and 80 percent of the entire population uses an adequate sanitation facility; ensuring that the excreta of 50 percent of households is safely stored, transported, and adequately treated, before being either re-used or safely returned to the environment; and that all schools and health facilities offer adequate sanitation facilities to all users.


At first there was no sanitation goal when the United Nations adopted eight anti-poverty MDGs in 2000.

When the "forgotten MDG" was added later, its target was to halve the proportion of people without basic sanitation by 2015 - which is likely to be missed.

"Countries just haven't made it a priority – it's embarrassing (because) it means you have to talk about shit,"  Brocklehurst said. "It's up to us to come up with a really good set of monitorable targets for the next go-around."

Alastair Morrison, who works as an adviser with the Stockholm-based UNDP Water Governance Facility water and sanitation programme, GoAL WaSH, supports the idea of a sanitation-specific goal.

"It's the forgotten MDG, it was forgotten initially and it was added in later," he told AlertNet. "People aren't pushing for it, promoting it, rarely want to talk about it."

"It's getting people to talk more about it, and getting it into more powerful audiences, talking about it with people like finance people who can actually programme funds so the rest of us can do something about it."

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.