Opinion: Toilets are not glamorous

WASHINGTON — Over 800 villagers lined up one day last month to celebrate the installation of a new public toilet in Janadesar, a tiny community in India’s Rajasthan desert. They had reason to celebrate the event, because a toilet is not taken for granted in rural Rajasthan, where only one in eight people has access to one.

What is shocking is that this is not unusual. Worldwide, about 2.5 billion people — 40 percent of the global population — do not have access to basic sanitation. Most of those without access live in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

A decade ago, world leaders committed to do something about this. One of eight Millennium Development Goals was focused on water, calling for a reduction by half in the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.

On access to drinking water, we are poised to meet the goal, with 87 percent, or 5.9 billion people, now having gained reliable access to safe water. But on sanitation, even if 1.3 billion people have gained access to toilets since 1990, progress has been too slow and we risk falling short of the goal.

Why is this? It may be as simple as this: Toilets are not glamorous. The dangers of open defecation are not usually discussed. This is seen as an unpleasant, even embarrassing, subject. It is rare to see people celebrate a toilet as they did in Janadesar. Even there, the event was organized by a local NGO, the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, to raise awareness of the sanitation issue.

The fact is that open defecation is also a deadly subject. Globally, an estimated 1.1 billion people defecate in the open, and about 1.5 million children die every year because they lack access to safe hygiene, sanitation and water.

These figures are grim evidence of a global public health emergency. The good news is that solving it is within our grasp. Modest investments have produced dramatic results in many countries.

In Burkina Faso, a water supply project tripled sanitation coverage to almost 1.5 million people living in the capital city of Ouagadougou. In Mumbai, 400,000 urban dwellers gained access to sanitation thanks to a Mumbai Slum Sanitation Project.

These projects, and thousands like them, are saving millions of lives, and improving the quality of millions more. It is so simple, yet still, at current rates, the world will miss the Millennium Development Goal on sanitation by 1 billion people, unless we act.

This week, ahead of the spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank, finance, infrastructure and water ministers will meet in Washington. The Bank is the largest single source of funding for water and sanitation, with $4.3 billion in lending devoted to this area in 2009. In addition, the World Bank-administered Water and Sanitation Program, to which the United States is an important donor, provided $30 million in free technical assistance to 25 countries to scale up successful sanitation and water projects.

The first order of business facing ministers gathered for the meetings must be the basic, simple, inexpensive, and obvious needs of poor people. Low cost sanitation interventions not only offer basic human dignity, they can reduce disease, malnutrition and death. If we can summon the will to make this sanitation effort a global priority by allocating the needed resources, we can save millions of lives.

Let the toilet lineup celebration in Janadesar be a global wakeup call. It is within our grasp to deliver safe water and sanitation to every person on the planet in just 10 years. If we do it, we can have toilet celebrations around the world, and finally put this embarrassing and deadly subject behind us.

Jamal Saghir is Director of Water, Energy and Transport programs at the World Bank Group.