The cost of poor sanitation

Access to clean drinking water and a decent sewage disposal system are things that many of us take for granted, but the lack of decent sanitation in parts of the developing world is still having severe effects.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 2.3 billion people worldwide – approximately one-third of the global population – still lack basic sanitation facilities such as toilets and latrines. Poor sanitation is the cause of millions of preventable deaths every year as well as affecting the wellbeing and productivity of many nations. Here’s a short overview of the current situation and a look at where we are now as well as what can be done.

Poor sanitation – a persistent problem

Although a lot of progress has been made over the last few decades in global poverty reduction and improvements in living standards, lack of sanitation infrastructure continues to blight many in poorer regions of the world. Around a third of the global population lacks basic sanitation. Countries in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are the worst affected, with rural populations suffering greatest of all.

Sanitation facilities are needed to prevent the contamination of drinking water and food products (which often use water in production) with pathogen-laden human wastes. According to the WHO, bad sanitation is linked to the transmission of water-borne diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, hepititis A, typhoid and polio as well as various neglected tropical diseases and malnutrition.

The Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) by the WHO and Unicef has developed levels of categorisation for sanitisation, running from open defecation (where faeces is disposed untreated into open spaces and bodies of water) to safely managed sanitation. Although around 2.1 billion of the global population have gained access to improved sanitation in the last decade, around 12% of people worldwide live in areas where open defecation is practised.

What are the costs of poor sanitation?

According to a research carried out by the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP), poor sanitation cost the global economy $222.9 billion in 2015. Nearly half of that was in India, the worst-affected nation.

The effects of poor sanitation can be broken down as:

  • Poor health/high mortality – bad sanitation causes deaths and diseases. Around 1.4 million child deaths a year have been attributed to diarrhoea caused by poor sanitation. The economic cost of mortality and healthcare provision has been calculated as $179 billion a year. Sanitation problems have also impacted on malnutrition and mental health.
  • Lower productivity – time off work due to ill health, caring for sick relatives and even time spent finding suitable toilet facilities cost the global economy around $43.5 billion a year.
  • Lack of education – children frequently have to miss school due to having to travel to collect water from the nearest source.
  • Environmental effects – the pollution of water sources and open countryside with human waste.
  • Gender inequality – in many areas, it is the girls who have to miss school and carry out water collecting duties.

What can be done to improve the situation?

Improving sanitation worldwide can bring immense benefits. As well as saving countless lives, a 2012 WHO study calculated that a $5.50 saving is made for every $1 invested in sanitation. Investment is definitely needed. Universal access to safely managed water and sanitation services by 2030 is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The World Bank has estimated that this will cost around $150 billion a year.

But it’s not just about improving toilet access and reducing defecation in the poorest regions. It’s also about building the capacity to improve waste management practices at government, community and household level, improving public education in areas such as hand-washing, as well as more effective targeting on these things.

The WSP report identified three key solution areas – in addition to political will to ensure better sanitation remains a priority, cross-sector collaboration (governments, NGOs and the private sector) and innovation are crucial. This means working with new partners and using technology to find ways not just to develop new sanitation products – such as LIXIL’s SaTo systems – but also to improve waste management and sanitation education. A joined up approach involving experts from all the relevant fields is the best way forward.

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