This Issue Brief introduces readers to the human rights-based approach to sanitation. Access to sanitation may reduce vulnerability, a key focus of social protection. This briefing paper makes the case for an increased focus on sanitation as a human right, explores current approaches to address this right, and provides ideas on the key directions needed to turn the tide on this critical issue.
Inadequate sanitation and unclean water result in the deaths of 1,400 children every day from preventable diseases like diarrhoea. Poor sanitation is also closely linked with issues of malnutrition and stunting in children. Consequently, events like World Toilet Day, which takes place annually on 19 November, are important to raise global awareness about the people who do not have access to improved sanitation, and why this is a global development priority.
And it is more than that as well: sanitation is a human right, formally recognized since 2010. However, according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, some 2.5 billion people (36 percent of the world’s population) do not have access to adequate facilities. A recent Human Rights Council resolution reports that even this figure underestimates the scale of the problem, as current monitoring practices do not reflect human rights challenges such as inequalities (including those between individuals and households as well as those between formal and informal areas within cities), safety and affordability of services. In addition, there is an unequal distribution of mortality and morbidity associated with poor sanitation and unsafe water, with disproportionately high levels among the poorest populations and the majority of deaths from diarrhoea occurring among children.
The economy is also significantly impacted. Poor sanitation and water supply result in USD 260 billion in annual economic losses due to ill health and loss of productive time. On the other hand, the global economic return on sanitation spending is USD 5.5 for every dollar invested. In addition to the economic benefits, interventions that address these issues have the potential to reduce the global disease burden by 9.1 percent.
Current investment in sanitation, however, is far from sufficient. Global reporting shows that in 2012, only 27 percent of funds allocated to water and sanitation were spent on sanitation. The world failed to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for sanitation of halving the number of people without adequate access.
Sanitation and the SDGs
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cover sanitation services more holistically than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did, which is an important and positive step. The MDGs focused on access to toilets and did not include monitoring what happened to waste beyond this point. They also did not address the multiple pathways by which pathogens from this waste can pose health risks, through leaking underground tanks and overflows into drains and surface water. Both of these are common occurrences, particularly in urban settlements in the Global South, where 90 percent of domestic wastewater is untreated. By contrast, the SDGs explicitly call for “[Ensured] availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” (SDG 6) by 2030. Target 6.2 in particular calls for “[achieving] access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and ending open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations”. The change in global targets with the SDGs is crucial, because recent research confirms the harmful effect that contamination has on drinking water quality, and estimates that some 1.8 million people globally use drinking water that is faecally contaminated, posing a major risk to their health.