Sanitation for all is an achievable goal. But we can't risk distractions and lose the political will
The Guardian, Thursday 6 May 2010
Your article reported criticism of the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets for water supply and sanitation (Doubt cast on claim that UN clean water targets will be met, 26 April). This concerned me because it fell into the trap of focusing on a narrow argument about data.
"The World Health Organisation said that since 1990 1.3 billion people had gained improved drinking water and 500 million better sanitation," you report; whereas Professor Asit Biswas, president of the Third World Centre for Water Management, "said official figures showing that many cities and countries had met their targets were 'baloney'". However, I believe the bigger picture is that "even if the MDG goals were reached in full, billions of people would still live with very poor water and sanitation".
Solving the problem is more important than arguing about numbers and definitions. The climate change debate has demonstrated how dangerously disputes about methodology can distract attention, public support and political will, from the big issue.
Moreover, Biswas was misleading when he said that if, in the developing world, "we put concrete around [a] well – nothing else – it becomes an 'improved source of water'; the quality is the same but you have 'improved' the physical structure, which has no impact." But there is an impact. Such a simple measure, if accompanied by hygiene education and environmental improvements, protects the well against faecal contamination or other pollutants.
For water and sanitation, there are numerous low-cost but highly effective technologies and interventions. To dismiss them unilaterally is unwise. During my 20 years in water supply and sanitation, I have seen a sufficient number of successful projects, in many of the least developed countries, to convince me that safe sanitation and drinking water for all is not merely a dream.
Biswas is also wrong in "calling for politicians to be removed from water management" and replaced by technical experts. Rather, both are necessary. There are many proven technologies: what is most lacking is political commitment. A large part of our efforts should be dedicated to persuading decision-makers of the economic and social benefits to be gained from investing in drinking water and sanitation.
Despite the article's basic premise, more people are gaining access to clean drinking water. There is increasing recognition of the business opportunities associated with sanitation. People should be persuaded to demand sanitation and to have this demand met by local entrepreneurs. In this way, toilets could become like mobile phones: everyone will want one, and affordability will improve. Human faeces (properly composted) should also be recognised as an economic commodity and not a waste product. The Chinese have known this for centuries, and only now are other nations catching up.
A few years ago talking about toilets was still a taboo; today, more politicians recognise its importance and are leading the sanitation revolution. The data from Unicef and the WHO should be used as a means to help us measure progress, not be dismissed for its shortcomings.