WASH 'not sexy' but must be addressed — WaterAid

Cecilia Chatterjee-Martinsen, executive director of WaterAid Sweden. Water and sanitation need to be a standalone goal, according to Chatterjee-Martinsen. Photo by: WaterAid Sweden

First, we need to call it as it is: Pee, poo and shit. And then we can move to discussing the consequences if we don’t take care of that.

That’s how Cecilia Chatterjee-Martinsen, executive director of WaterAid Sweden, referred to water, sanitation and hygiene issues — which didn’t really get much of the attention under the Millennium Development Goals, and continue to remain an uncomfortable subject for many.

In an exclusive interview with Devex, she admitted the issue of sanitation will “never be sexy,” but the international community need to face and understand it to better address the problem.

“What would you do if you had no toilet? What will your lives look like? Imagine the waste that would be on the ground,” argued Chatterjee-Martinsen from Stockholm, which hosts International Water Week, a major international event that hopes to bring WASH to the forefront of the development agenda.

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with the WaterAid Sweden chief:

In the U.N. High-Level Panel’s report on the post-2015 framework, universal access to water and sanitation was proposed as a standalone goal, not just a subgoal as it was under the MDGs. How do you see this development helping organizations such as WaterAid in its efforts?

First, it’s crucial that it’s not only a standalone goal, but also that it’s not hidden within another sustainable development goal. So I think a standalone goal will help to make it measurable and keep the focus on it.

Because when the [international community] starts to communicate to a wider audience … [it’s] only going to focus on — as was with the MDGs — on the main goals. Water and sanitation wasn’t in there with one of the main MDGs. The risk is that it will be forgotten and it won’t be highlighted.

At the same time, we really need to have a holistic, more integrated approach when it comes to water supply and sanitation. It can’t just be a standalone goal that only concerns the people working with water and sanitation. It also has to be within the plans of education, within the plans of equality, gender equality, poverty eradication.

[The proposal] is going to help us really put the pressure, I think, on all the different actors to really enhance their issues and priorities on WASH. But there’s still a process that needs to be followed, and a lot of issues of course that are being pushed. So far we are hopeful, but we still need to work to make sure that it’s not forgotten, and especially not sanitation.

The United Nations has reported that the goal on access to improved drinking water sources has been met. How did you view the announcement? And how did that news shape the way the international aid community deals with the sector going forward?

I think that news just went past quite unnoticeable, to be honest, from the people who actually work with water. But I think that, as we’re moving forward, we cannot forget the most hidden of the MDGs, which is the sanitation target. And we are so off-track here, that really, now our focus should be going on really looking on how we’re dealing with sanitation. [So] while we try to celebrate the achievements, we were also trying to pinpoint about the things that have not been doing [well], and really focusing the eyes of the world on sanitation, the issue that no one really wants to talk about.

How hard is it to communicate the importance of sanitation?

Frankly, we as a sector, have been reluctant to use the real word. I think we have to be able to talk about pee and poo and shit. We have to name it for what it really is, and not write it in nicer form. And also to really just talk about the consequences. I mean one thing is about taking care of our human excreta; the other thing is, what happens if we don’t? And kind of take that message home, that it has a huge impact on health, that it has a huge impact on girls’ possibility to go to school, on children living health lives, and children actually surviving.

[It’s about] highlighting that this is an important issue, not just for the technical part of it, but it is important for sustainable development, for [the] economic development of nations.

Is it harder to communicate to ordinary people than to high-level officials?

I find talking to ordinary people, people on the street, both in the communities where we work at WaterAid, in developing countries, in poor communities, and on the streets of Sweden to be honest, it’s easier to talk to the common person because they can also relate to it. I mean it’s a personal thing, especially sanitation. What you do behind closed toilet doors is usually not talked about. And the people can relate to: what would you do if you had no toilet? What will your lives look like? And imagine the waste that would be on the ground.

When you come to the higher levels … being prepared to talk about shit and being prepared to talk about toilets and putting that high on their agenda — it’s not a thing that usually sells or that usually kind of gets you a vote.

It’s easier to talk about more fancy, sexy things than the toilet. So I think it’s more difficult on the higher level to get people to actually be brave enough to talk about sanitation.

How do we make sanitation sexy so more people would want to engage and talk about it?

I’m convinced that looking at the cost of not investing in WASH is our strongest card. If we can convince, for instance finance ministers, to invest in sanitation, the most basic human right and basic bodily human functions, you will gain. You will gain more productive people, you will gain more in decreased cost and medical care on national level. So I think we need to make the cost-benefit argument and the cost-benefit analysis.

Also, I think all organizations – WaterAid included – need to open up. And we need to start looking much more at collaborating across sectorial lines. At WaterAid, we’re trying to do this at country level. [For instance], we work with the Ministry of Education, to make sure no schools are built without toilets.

Sanitation and water is almost linked to everything in the development agenda. You can link all the MDGs to water and sanitation. So we all need to get partnerships and understanding in a variety of sectors. I think that’s something we still need to work on though quite hard.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.