Better sanitation is a matter of basic human dignity, UN expert says

18 November 2008

Boosting the standard of sanitation in poor countries worldwide is a matter of basic human dignity, and yet 40 per cent of the global population still does not have access to toilets, a United Nations rights expert said today, calling for donor investment to be stepped up to save lives and reduce the spread of diseases.

UN Independent Expert Catarina de Albuquerque issued a statement in Geneva – on the eve of World Toilet Day tomorrow – saying that the scale of the crisis is enormous, with an estimated 2.5 billion people lacking access to decent sanitation.

“There is compelling evidence that sanitation brings the single greatest return on investment of any development intervention – roughly $9 for every $1 spent,” Ms. de Albuquerque said. “Yet it remains the most neglected and most off-track of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets.”

The MDGs are a series of targets agreed upon by world leaders for reducing social and economic ills, all by 2015, and they include the goal of halving the proportion of people without safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

But Ms. de Albuquerque, who is the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations attached to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, said the question of sanitation has been treated as “a taboo topic” for too long.

“Investing in sanitation will not only lead to the enjoyment of human rights, but will also contribute to improved development outcomes and overall living standards.”

The Independent Expert noted that poor sanitation leads to devastating consequences. An estimated 5,000 children die from diarrhoea every day, and treating diseases related to diarrhoea costs an average of 12 per cent of national health budgets in sub-Saharan African countries. Lack of toilets in schools increases the number of student absences, and worker productivity also suffers through widespread disease and illness. More basically, being forced to defecate in public is an affront to human dignity.

“Infant deaths, lost work days and missed school are estimated to have an economic cost of around $38 billion per year,” according to Ms. de Albuquerque, who added that sanitation is considered by many to be the most important medical advance since 1840 – superior to antibiotics, vaccines and anaesthesia.

Independent Experts such as Ms. de Albuquerque serve in an independent and unpaid capacity and report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The Portuguese lawyer took up her post on 1 November.


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