Choosing the right post-2015 sanitation indicators

Nyaluak Reath Choap, a volunteer sanitation worker at a refugee camp in Gambela, Ethiopia, holds up an illustration on how to use pit latrines to raise awareness about the importance of personal hygiene. Photo by: UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND 

In just under 500 days, we will reach the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals. Some of those goals will be met, and I hope that those involved will take a moment to celebrate. But that isn’t the case for those of us working in the area of sanitation.

We are among the furthest from achieving our MDG target, which is to reduce by half the number of people who don’t have access to improved sanitation. Falling short of this target is a major disappointment, but we also need to recognize that the indicator itself does not capture the breadth of the sanitation challenge. Put simply: in order to accelerate change that truly improves and saves lives, we will need to change what we measure.

No doubt, providing people with access to toilets is a critical step. However, what we have found over the years since the MDGs were set is that mere access to toilets does not result in safe sanitation. Toilets are necessary, but not sufficient. Two more steps are required: people have to use the toilets, and the waste contained by toilets must not be released untreated into the environment, where it will make people sick.

Many countries have made tremendous progress in getting entire communities to commit to using toilets, and there is now consensus within the sanitation sector that ending open defecation is critical to saving lives and thus must be a priority. We’ve learned that in some communities there remain cultural and social barriers that will require significant investments in behavior and social norm change to overcome, but also that once households commit to stopping open defecation, they can and will invest in moving up the sanitation ladder when they are offered products they want and can afford.

However, the public health problem can be severe even when almost everyone is using a toilet. Although for example Bangladesh, has reduced their rate of open defecation by an amazing 97 percent, a 2011 study by the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program estimated that poor sanitation and hygiene still costs the Bangladeshi economy up to $4.2 billion per year, equivalent to 6.3 percent of the country’s GDP in 2007. As populations urbanize and informal settlements grow, so do the challenges of urban sanitation.

Take Dhaka for example. The WSP collected data showing that while 99 percent of the population in the capital use toilets, only 2 percent of their waste is being treated. That means that an astounding 98 percent of all the disease-carrying pathogens in the human waste from that city are being released into the environment. Those pathogens are being piped into ditches, dumped into fields, leaked out of sewer lines, and released into bodies of water from overloaded treatment plants. It’s even happening right next to the toilets that are supposed to protect people from this dangerous waste. And so, people in Dhaka and in cities all across the developing world are getting sick.

We need to start thinking about — and measuring — our progress in a way that captures the full sanitation challenge, one that captures that cities like Dhaka aren’t today achieving sanitation levels nearing perfect, but rather recognizes they have a long way to go. Fortunately, one single indicator can capture this: the amount of untreated fecal waste that gets released into the environment. A commitment to reduce untreated waste would drive the necessary investments in fecal sludge management in urban and peri-urban areas, while complementing investments to end open defecation in rural areas.

As the world turns its attention to creating new post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, I think it’s critical that we set a target to measure and reduce the amount of untreated waste. This one indicator could capture much of the progress sought in the sanitation goals recently proposed by the U.N. Open Working Group on the SDGs.

Some may think that it's too difficult to measure untreated waste within urban communities, especially informal settlements. But I am encouraged by the great work coming from partners like WSP, Center for Global Safe Water, and GIZ, which are developing the tools and processes needed to accurately measure untreated waste at the city level. We are committed to working with these and other partners to provide access to a full suite of tools and processes that will deliver accurate and actionable results.

We are also working with partners to come up with new tools and processes to reduce untreated waste, ranging from how entrepreneurs can more efficiently empty pits and septic tanks to how governments can provide enabling environments that incent such entrepreneurs while ensuring that the waste actually gets treated. Some of these partners are inventing technologies that will provide new products and services for households, entrepreneurs, and governments looking to reduce the levels of untreated waste in their communities.

If you don't pick the right things to focus on and measure, you're not going to get the results you’re looking for.

As we, the global community, finalize our plans for the post-2015 SDGs, let's make sure that we pick the right indicators and choose the right targets. And then let's empower the entire sanitation sector with the tools to measure and meet those aggressive targets. That's how we will save lives and unlock amazing human potential.

Aug. 18, 2014, marked the 500-day milestone until the target date to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Join Devex, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, to raise awareness of the progress made through the MDGs and to rally to continue the momentum. Check out our Storify page and tweet us using #MDGmomentum.

About the author

  • Brianarbogast

    Brian Arbogast

    Brian Arbogast leads the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's effort to bring groundbreaking innovations in sanitation technology. Arbogast was previously a corporate vice president at Microsoft Corporation, leading an international portfolio of research and development projects. More recently, he concentrated in cleantech and international development, driving market solutions to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

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