Improving sanitation means saving lives: Interview with European Commission expert

Thursday, 19 November 2015 11:58 GMT

The European Commission is the largest humanitarian donor of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) assistance. © European Union/ECHO/Jonathan Hyams

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According to estimates in recent years, 1.7 million people die every year because of inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene conditions and services. Only 68 percent of the global population today uses proper sanitation facilities, such as toilets. This is why, in the past decade, humanitarian funding in this sector has increased by thirty times.

Denis Heidebroek is the European Commission's Global Coordinator for WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) and Shelter. Based in Bogotá, Colombia, he follows the European Commission's humanitarian projects in this sector around the world, building on his 24 years’ experience in the field. He was interviewed on the occasion of World Toilet Day 2015.

What is sanitation and why is it crucial for people's survival?

Sanitation generally refers to the provision of facilities and services for the safe disposal of human urine and faeces. It also refers to the maintenance of hygienic conditions, through services such as garbage collection and wastewater disposal.

Sanitation is one of three sub-sectors of WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene). These three sectors of intervention always need to be closely integrated in humanitarian operations.

In light of the strong interaction between sanitation and health, education, malnutrition and poverty, and of insufficient progress towards improving sanitation, 2008 was declared the International Year of Sanitation by the UN. However, seven years later, as the 2015 Millennium Development Goal on sanitation expires, much remains to be done. Almost 700 million people worldwide still have no sustainable access to these basic services.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) predicts that by 2025 the number of people without access to safe water will rise from just over one billion to two billions.

The EU is one of the biggest donors for humanitarian WASH projects – allocating around €200 million each year.

What are the main risks associated with lack of sanitation?

Inadequate sanitation is a major source of diseases and outbreaks. When a humanitarian crisis causes sudden displacements of people and overcrowding in densely populated and poorly-serviced settlements, major sanitation risks are an issue for those who are displaced, as well as their host communities.

Diarrheal diseases, including cholera, result in nearly 700 000 children dying each year. Sixty percent of these deaths are caused by poor sanitation and hygiene, as well as the lack of access to clean and safe water. All those deaths are preventable.

Other risks include malaria, dengue, acute respiratory infections, or skin diseases. Additionally, inadequate sanitation can severely increase the risks of under-nutrition through diarrhea, intestinal worms and chronic infection of the gut. The impact of sanitation on growth faltering is well documented.

Improving sanitation is known to have a significant beneficial impact on public health and nutrition for millions of disaster-affected populations worldwide.

What is the European Commission's approach in this sector?

The European Commission recognises that integrated programming between WASH and other sectors is fundamental for an effective response to the basic needs of disaster-affected populations. Such a holistic approach can contribute to improving the impact of the actions funded by the Commission.

The importance of inter-sectoral synergies with health and nutrition are fairly well documented and increasingly addressed, but the ones with others sectors such as shelter and settlement, protection, education or even livelihoods need to be further explored and developed.

Local culture, religions, beliefs and practices always need to inform sanitation programming, even in the most acute phase of response to a disaster. The degree of consultation carried out with beneficiaries may be limited at the onset of an emergency – in the first crucial hours after a disaster strikes. But it later evolves into a more in-depth exploration of local sanitation needs, preferences, technologies, priorities, and opportunities. This is also part of our accountability towards beneficiaries.

Offering gender-sensitive sanitation solutions is particularly important. But agreements with the intended users on the design and maintenance of sanitation facilities are just as critical to promote ownership of sanitation facilities, and to avoid the collapse of associated services.

Read the full interview on the European Commission's website.

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