A boy reaches for a tap, installed through World Bank-supported National Water and Sanitation program in Azerbaijan. Water, sanitation and hygiene are crucial to poverty eradication. Photo by: Allison Kwesell / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Fourteen years ago, when the U.N. Millennium Development Goals were first agreed, sanitation was added as an afterthought, and hygiene to this day doesn’t feature.

The consequences are evident in the lack of progress. More than one in every three people around the world are still without decent toilets. No other number so clearly defines global inequality.

As we look towards a new set of Sustainable Development Goals for beyond 2015, will the international community learn from these errors and correct the mistake?

We are seeing encouraging signs that this will happen — but we need to build the momentum.

Last month, I was honored to represent civil society in the first of six thematic debates on the post-2015 agenda organized by U.N. General Assembly President John William Ashe which focused on water, sanitation and energy, and where I emphasized how important it is to put sanitation and hygiene first when addressing poverty.

My message was simple: No village, no city, no country has ever lifted themselves out of poverty without water, sanitation and hygiene, better known as WASH within the international development community.

U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recognized this challenge, and told the debate: “Eradicating extreme poverty is our most urgent priority, sustainable development our guide. Universal access to safe water, sanitation and energy will be critical.”

“Without water and sanitation the fight against poverty will not be won,” added Jean-Francis Zinsou, the U.N. representative from Benin speaking on behalf of the bloc of least-developed countries. Benin, along with the other LDCs, have the most to gain — or lose — from the new SDGs. We cannot dismiss their moral authority when considering the future of international development.

Influencing the debate

Our sector is seeking clear, ambitious but achievable targets which aim for universal access to WASH by 2030.

These recommendations — strongly supported by WaterAid — are also in the detailed technical consultations on water, sanitation and hygiene, led by the authoritative WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program.

What’s next is the debate around 19 potential themes for the final SDGs, as published late in February by the co-chairs of the U.N. Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals.

Right now, we have five months to influence this debate. Water and sanitation is on the list, but it is up against many others.

The next point of contention will be pairing this list down within a set of guiding principles: finishing the existing MDGs, setting timely targets and establishing universal responsibilities. WASH must meet all of these.

Listen to all voices

As the next round of meetings and consultation gets underway, we must remember the global voices calling for action.

Some 300,000 people have already lent their name to the World Walks for Water and Sanitation taking place around World Water Day on March 22. Add to these the 1.1 million people who added their name to an End Water Poverty U.N. petition last year calling for universal access to these essential services. And last but not least are the 1.5 million voters in the U.N.’s World We Want poll who rank WASH as a Top 10 issue.

Finally, and most importantly, we must hear the voices of the 2.5 billion people lacking sanitation and the 768 million without safe water.

The debate around what will follow the MDGs has been long and complex. There are many issues on the table. But putting safe WASH front and center is not negotiable. Sanitation and hygiene are absolutely critical to human development and dignity and essential to human life.

As I told the leaders in New York, when you’re building a house, you don’t put the plumbing on the outside — you put it in at the beginning, and you make sure it will work for a very long time.

In the coming weeks and months, as member states discuss and debate the shape of efforts to reduce poverty, let us keep in mind a staggering fact: In 2014, we still live in a world where 1 billion people have no choice but to defecate in the open.

It’s not pleasant to think about. But without a toilet, their lives, their health, their education, their safety and the lives of their children are at risk.

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About the author

  • Girish Menon

    Girish Menon is director of international operations for WaterAid UK, with responsibility over teams in Asia, West Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa. Previously, he worked for WaterAid in India as well as for Plan International and ActionAid. Menon represents WaterAid on the Board of Water and Sanitation for Urban Poor.