Monday, September 20, 2010

Public Toilet, school toilets and sanitation

Hemantha Withanage,
Centre for Environmental Justice

Public toilets should not be the dirtiest place in your neighbourhood. Yet most public toilets, school toilets, toilets in estates are not clean and adequate. Commuters, school children and urban dwellers seriously suffer from this problem. You can hardly find a clean toilet in Colombo, Kandy and other urban centres. All railway stations, bus stands, even small eateries where long distant buses stops have very dirty, smelly toilets. More than men women suffer most from this problem. Have you ever thought of how women and school girls suffer due to unclean toilets?

Open defecation – the riskiest sanitation practice. Although there are no official figures available, Sri Lanka still has this problem. This practice decline worldwide, with a global decrease from 25% in 1990 to 17% in 2008, representing a decrease of 168 million people practicing open defecation since 1990. However, this practice is still widely spread in South Asia, where an estimated 44% of the population defecates in the open. Globally, 1.2 billion people practice open defecation, two thirds – 778 million –in South Asia.

This is due to the lack of toilets, attitude, perhaps ignorance and lack of awareness. Sri Lanka with very high literacy awareness may not be the case. However, compare to other countries in Asia, Sri Lanka has achieved its sanitations Millennium Development target. Yet lack of toilets is a significant issue in some areas.

Clean Water and Sanitation are two sides of the coin. Clean affordable water is a human right. In South Asia only 81% people have access to clean water. In Sri Lanka 77% people enjoy clean drinking water exceeding the MDG targets.

Rural areas lagging in water and sanitation globally. Seven out of ten people without basic sanitation are rural inhabitants and more than eight out of ten people without access to improved drinking water sources live in rural areas.

A similar disparity is found between the poor and non-poor. Richest are more than twice as likely to use an improved drinking-water source and almost five times more likely to use improved sanitation facilities.

Sanitation is fundamental to personal hygiene and maintaining a clean environment within households for a healthy family. However, with almost 39% of the world’s population or over 2.6 billion people living without improved sanitation facilities, are far from reaching the sanitation MDG target. According to the WHO if the current trend continues unchanged, the international community will miss the 2015 sanitation MDG by almost one billion people.

The Delhi declaration, the outcome of the third South Asian Conference on Sanitation (SACOSAN III) held in 2008, recognizes that access to Sanitation and Safe Drinking Water is a basic right, and accordingly national priority to sanitation is imperative. This also confirms their commitment to achieving National and Millennium Developmental Goals (MDGs) on Sanitation in a time bound manner in all participating countries in South Asia. It asserts that achieving total and sustainable sanitation in all rural and urban communities in their countries is not only possible but also is their esteemed goal.

Millennium development goal have set the targets to halve the population with no sanitation by 2015. Strong political leadership is needed to address this crisis. Countries in the SAARC region established a regional corporation to facilitate efforts to meet the sanitation challenge in the region. The South Asia Conference on Sanitation (SACOSAN) is used as the platform for dialogue and influence to mobilize political will to focus on sanitation.

It was revealed that unhygienic practices, due to lack of sanitation, by the majority of people in the region are a serious public health threat to the quality of life. The main cause of child morbidity in the region under the age of five years is due to water and sanitation related diseases. Diarrhea continues to be the leading cause of child deaths in South Asia and poor sanitation- alongside unsafe drinking water- causes 88% of these deaths according to the World Health Organisation. According to the UNICEF/WHO “at current rate of progress, the 2015 MDG target for sanitation will not be met in South Asia until 2043- 28 years too late.”The 8 countries in the SACOSAN process have determined that programmes for good sanitation and hygiene promotion should be accelerated in order to improve quality of life of people and to reduce child mortality and morbidity.

Sanitation targets cannot be achieved unless there is a great political will and without right attitudinal changes. It’s true that SACOSAN process has influenced member countries to prepare policies and programmes towards meeting sanitation goals. As a result many countries have formulated sanitation policies focusing on sustainable sanitation, increased community subsidies and mobilized more resources for promotion, creating awareness among people and building political will. However, the political will is essential at the local level too.

Right to sanitation is a basic human right. How many Municipalities, Urban Councils Pradeshiya Sabas, school principles, station masters, small eatery owners, and Estate managers have taken this serious? Why not the Public Health Inspectors, Environmental Police keep eye on public toilets, school toilets and estate toilets?