Beyond the SDGs: How to deliver water and sanitation to everyone, everywhere

A public toilet in Ciudad Pachacutec in Peru. More than 2.3 billion people still do not have access to a safe, private toilet. Photo by: Monica Tijero / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

On Friday, world leaders will embark upon a new journey to tackle extreme poverty and make our planet a healthier, more equal place to live with the adoption of the new U.N. Sustainable Development framework. These are exciting times, and a real chance for change.

Water and sanitation play a key role in these 17 global goals on sustainable development — not only in SDG 6, but crosscutting through health, education and gender rights. It’s hard to imagine a successful school, a successful hospital or a successful community without such basics as safe drinking water, a decent, private toilet, effective removal of human waste, and good hygiene practice, including hand and face washing with soap.

But sanitation was an afterthought in the original Millennium Development Goals. After all, human excrement and sewage systems are not attractive topics, especially in official circles. When addressing the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development in 2008, I used the word ‘shit’ to get my point about the impending crisis across — it was translated, albeit hesitantly, after a definite pause. And even the U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, a champion of ending open defecation, has had translators hesitate at his use of the word ‘toilet’ in the conference rooms of the United Nations.

When the final review of the MDGs came in, it was no surprise that sanitation was among the most off-track of all the targets, falling short by more than 650 million people. That is more than double the population of the United States. This is a failing we can ill-afford to repeat in these new global goals.

More than 2.3 billion people still do not have access to a safe, private toilet. Nearly 1 billion have no choice but to defecate in the open, at road sides, in fields or behind bushes, which contaminates living environments and contributes to disease, death and indignity.

While there is no doubt much progress has been made under the MDGs, you may not have felt it if you are a disabled or elderly person, living in a remote community or in an informal urban settlement, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The question is, how do we change this trajectory in the new global goals?

Drawing from experience

We know that success in sanitation does not require a country to become wealthy. Singapore and South Korea managed it in a generation, alongside their economic growth rather than waiting to become prosperous.

It is a matter of political prioritization, incorporating sanitation into city planning and housing from the start, and treating it as an essential public service critical to prosperity. It requires public funding and planning.

WaterAid has drawn upon these lessons and the U.K.’s own history, when a comprehensive sewer system inspired by the Great Stink of the sewage-infested River Thames in London brought raging cholera epidemics under control, 150 years ago. We’ve worked with utilities in developing countries to extend water and sewerage networks to poor communities, and with city administrations to support the planning and design of new water and sanitation systems that have the potential to include hundreds of thousands of newcomers, now and into the future. The work on implementing these new goals is already underway.

All these efforts require resources, and another major challenge of the last two decades has been chronic under-resourcing for water and sanitation, reflecting the relatively low priority assigned to this by governments and their development partners.

A different approach

All of these lessons will be important in weeks and months to come. The immediate concern, once the moment of celebration has passed, will be how these goals and targets are implemented. How will we measure progress and hold countries to account on their pledges to reach everyone everywhere with water, sanitation and hygiene promotion in the next 15 years?

This will mark the first time any international agreement has called for an end to open defecation, and for a focus on the sanitation and hygiene needs of women and girls, and the most marginalized.

Sustainable management of water and sanitation has its own dedicated SDG 6 with six targets, including universal access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene and a clear reference to the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The framework is agreed but how it will be measured and implemented is still up for discussion. It will be March 2016 before we know whether indicators under health and education targets will include measures of water and sanitation, or whether hand-washing will be included at all. Current proposals do not include this, which is of great concern for WaterAid.

To reach universal access there will be a need to monitor in new ways — do doctors and nurses in healthcare centres have water and soap for washing? Do schools have enough safe, private toilets to accommodate their students? Are sanitation systems disposing of waste appropriately to ensure both people and the environment are protected? In some cases, governments are already measuring some of these things; we need to bring these measures to a common standard, so that we can build on existing progress and push through bottlenecks.

As the focus moves from celebrating the agreement to deciding how to measure the new Global Goals, we urge member states to learn the lessons of the MDG era. What is measured, funded and prioritised gets done. We need indicators that deliver on the ambition of the new development framework.

The devil is in the details, and the next few months will be critical in finalizing the indicators on which success depends.

One chance for real change

The MDGs didn’t eradicate extreme poverty. Documents — even those signed by world leaders — don’t automatically create change. But there has been progress to be proud of since the year 2000, and the MDGs have created momentum to build upon. After 15 years of concerted effort, more than 90 percent of the global population now uses an improved source of drinking water. Some 2.1 billion people have gained access to a decent toilet since 1990.

Adopting these goals is a renewed promise to change our world for the better but it will take political will at all levels and funding to get there. Only through working in partnership, addressing the goals holistically and tackling the least glamorous issues head on will this be achieved.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Margaret Batty

    Margaret Batty is the Director of Global Policy and Campaigns at WaterAid. She has over 20 years' professional experience working in an international capacity for the voluntary sector, including Age Concern, local government, central government, EU institutions and the United Nations.