Sanitation for all: The MDGs and beyond

New toilets in Abidjian, Ivory Coast. There is still 2.5 billion people that have no access to a decent toilet or latrine. Photo by: Patricia Esteve / United Nations

There has been significant progress over the last twenty years by governments, global citizens and the private sector in tackling the main obstacles to sustainable development: poverty and disease.

The Millennium Development Goals have shown us what can be achieved with successfully applied targeted financial policies and human ingenuity to many entrenched global challenges.

Millions of people have been lifted from extreme poverty and hunger. In the fight against malaria, an estimated 3.3 million deaths were averted between 2000 and 2012. Antiretroviral therapy for HIV-infected people has saved 6.6 million lives since 1995. Maternal mortality has fallen by 45 per cent since 1990. Some 2.3 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources since 1990, collectively helping the world to meet that MDG target in the process.

These are important achievements in their own right which will also inform the priorities to be set for the post-2015 development agenda.

We must also address emerging and worsening challenges. With climate change and rising food needs there are greater demands on energy and water. Not only is there greater water scarcity, but pollution is also increasing.

We cannot afford to delay our response to these looming crises. While billions of people have seen improved sanitation since 1990, the world is still likely to miss the MDG sanitation target by over half a billion people. The time has come for a paradigm shift in the way we manage our water resources.

For billions of people today, lack of proper sanitation means higher mortality among children under five and fewer young students, especially girls, staying in school.

A third of the global population — 2.5 billion people— still has no access to a decent toilet or latrine. Open defecation is one of the main causes of diarrhea and other at times deadly diseases. There is also growing evidence linking open defecation to increased undernutrition and stunted growth. The search for a place to defecate can be fraught with danger, especially for women and girls as we have witnessed recently.

We have the partnerships and technologies to halt open defecation, improve sanitation and save lives. Now is the time for urgent action.

I have been inspired by the health workers, families and children I have met around the world who are making a real impact on poverty and disease. Recently, I engaged in Ethiopia with students who showed me innovative ways they are taught to disinfect their hands when there is no soap, by using ashes instead. This simple but effective hygiene measure — as well as expanding latrines coverage in villages — can have a huge life-saving impact.

In Ethiopia I also met Abebech, a young health worker among the 38,000 deployed in nearly all rural villages through a government program supported by UNICEF. I was impressed by her dedication to improving the lives of her fellow citizens, and heartened at the thought of this level of commitment being multiplied by others across the country.

Through the Sanitation and Water for All global partnership, more than 50 governments and partners have made specific commitments to better access to improved water sources and adequate sanitation at the national level. These principled commitments deserve continued support.

National and local governments need to allocate the necessary financial and human resources to end open defecation, promote good hygiene practices, and provide access to clean and safe toilets. We have seen good examples, such as the villages in India and Nigeria partnering with their governments and the U.N. on the Community Approaches to Total Sanitation program, which is having tangible effect.

We also need businesses to step up investments in improving sanitation, and civil society organizations must continue to monitor progress on the ground so the world has evidence of what is working and where.

To support his efforts to break the embarrassed silence over open defecation, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tasked my office to lead a new U.N. campaign to bring open defecation to an end. Our campaign website is just one new tool to help us achieve it. We will be coming up with new ideas and initiatives for engaging citizens, governments and partners in the coming months, including during the U.N. General Assembly and the Global Citizen Festival in September and World Toilet Day on November 19.

We have just 500 days before the MDG deadline is reached and before we begin to shape the post-2015 agenda. We must press on to address the remaining challenges, save lives, and set our world on course for a better future.

Let us go to work!

Aug. 18, 2014, marks 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.

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

About the author

  • Jan Eliasson

    Jan Eliasson is the appointed deputy secretary-general of the United Nations and was the special envoy for Darfur from 2007 to 2008. Prior to this, he served as the president of the 60th session of the U.N. General Assembly. Eliasson was Sweden’s ambassador to the U.S. and was the appointed foreign minister of Sweden.