The world is lagging seriously in its efforts to slash the number of people who lack access to decent sanitation, leaving too many people deprived of basic dignity, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today, calling for concrete measures from United Nations Member States, civil society groups and others in the year ahead to remedy the problem.
Mr. Ban told the first preparatory meeting for the International Year of Sanitation, which will be marked in 2008, that “access to sanitation is a fundamental issue of human dignity and human rights, and also of economic development and environmental protection.”
An estimated 2.6 billion people – including about 980 million children – worldwide do not have access to basic sanitation services, a statistic Mr. Ban described as “simply unacceptable.” Instead they are forced to defecate in bags, buckets or roadside ditches, causing serious health risks to themselves and others.
Mr. Ban urged the participants at today’s meeting, held at UN Headquarters in New York, to make the most of the opportunity provided by the official Year to generate “real, positive changes” for those without sanitation.
“Efforts by UN agencies are just one part of the equation. Real change demands resources, commitment, policy changes and other concrete steps by governments, civil society and all stakeholders.”
Access to sanitation “is deeply and inextricably connected to virtually all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in particular those involving the environment, education, gender equality and the reduction of child mortality and poverty.”
The MDGs are a series of anti-poverty targets which world leaders agreed in 2000 to try to work towards, and they include a commitment to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation. Yet if current trends continue, the number of people without basic sanitation will only drop to 2.4 billion by 2015.
Today’s meeting was held after the General Assembly voted in December last year to designate 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation. Participants included representatives of UN Member States, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academics, civil society groups and the private sector.
The meeting heard improved sanitation facilities could have dramatic effects, from reducing diarrhoea-related deaths among young children by more than one third to speeding up economic development in countries where poor sanitation is a key cause of lost work and school days.
The Prince of Orange, Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, who is Chairperson for the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, told the meeting that it is important to translate the general goals of the Year into measurable targets that include concrete plans and detailed figures.
“What do we want to achieve by the end of 2008, and how do we achieve it?” he asked.
UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Ann M. Veneman said in a message to the meeting that young people are especially vulnerable to diseases caused by a lack of proper sanitation, with unsafe water and bad hygiene and sanitation thought responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million children under the age of five every year.
Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs José Antonio Ocampo added his voice to the calls for accelerated action. He called the lack of access to sanitation a “silent humanitarian crisis” because it is a problem so many people are too shy or embarrassed to discuss openly.