It's Time to Break the Silence on Sanitation and Open Defecation

"The evidence is clear: we cannot effectively protect development gains, nor continue global progress against poverty and disease without good sanitation policies and behavioral changes related to the practice of open defecation."
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The global sanitation crisis impacts the lives of 2.5 billion people, including 1 billion people who practice open defecation. As the world prepares to observe World Toilet Day on 19 November, Sanjay Wijesekera (SW) -- Chief of UNICEF's Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme -- and UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson (DSG) discuss the impact of poor sanitation on the fight against global poverty and disease.

SW: Deputy Secretary-General, for people unfamiliar with the issue, can you explain why global citizens, the private sector and governments should invest more in pro-sanitation policies and programmes?

DSG: The evidence is clear: we cannot effectively protect development gains, nor continue global progress against poverty and disease without good sanitation policies and behavioral changes related to the practice of open defecation.

In 2013, 1,000 children died every day as a result of diarrhoeal diseases associated with unclean water and poor sanitation and hygiene. Besides the immense loss for their families and communities, this means 1,000 agents of change, innovation and promise needlessly lost every day due to something the world can fix with increased investments, public-private partnerships and public discourse.

The world must urgently address the sanitation issue if we are to reduce these preventable deaths. We must ensure that boys and girls have equal opportunity to not only survive, but to develop to their full potential.

SW: What are some barriers you encounter in the UN's efforts to realize sanitation for all?

DSG: In many places, even talking about defecation and sanitation is perceived as taboo, or worse, as unimportant. To see progress on sanitation, communities worldwide will need to create the space to talk about the practice of open defecation. Only then will the issue gain more visibility in public discourse and motivate tangible actions -- from both private and public sectors -- to improve adequate sanitation access. This is why our UN-led global call to action is focusing on breaking the silence surrounding open defecation.

DSG: I have a question for you now. What programmes and partnerships have you seen that are successfully enabling communities to address the sanitation challenge?

SW: Over the last five years, we have been working with Governments and NGO partners to develop and expand our community approaches to total sanitation (CATS), which aim to achieve open defecation free communities. Our country offices are also looking at innovative ways to stimulate interest and change among key influencers. In India for instance, UNICEF has launched a social media campaign (Poo 2 Loo) to increase awareness of open defecation amongst the urban, better-off population, to trigger greater policy action and focus on the issue. The campaign has gone viral!

The key is for everyone to work together because the agenda is too big for any one government or agency to tackle alone. As you know, we are a member of the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, which includes over 90 developing country governments, donors, civil society organizations and other development partners, and seeks to galvanize political commitment leading to action on the ground.

SW: What is next after the Millennium Development Goals and what can partners and global citizens do to ensure that sanitation for all is prioritized in the next development framework?

DSG: Over the past several years, the UN and partners have successfully facilitated a global conversation on how to build upon the success of the Millennium Development Goals. Inputs from numerous stakeholders have fed into current Post-2015 discussions among Member States about the scope and targets for the next global development framework.

Currently, the Member States are discussing a target for realizing universal access to sanitation by 2030, including eliminating open defecation and recognizing that we must focus on the poorest and most vulnerable people. The coming year will see important negotiations and the Secretary General will soon deliver his synthesis report to Member States.

As we approach the next Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) meeting in April 2015, I am also excited to see the progress on the 379 commitments made at the SWA meeting in 2014 to reduce barriers to delivering sustainable water and sanitation services.

SW: Deputy Secretary-General, thank you for your time. Are there any additional thoughts or insights you'd like to share for World Toilet Day?

DSG: As a last point, it is important for the public and decision makers to harness signs for optimism and evidence of progress. Countries like Ethiopia more than halved the rate of open defecation since 2000. This is extraordinary and shows that progress on sanitation and other global challenges are achievable.

It is up to all of us. I know I've said it before, but it's worth repeating -- no one can do everything, but everyone can do something! When we are creating the world we want, we must keep in mind that we must create a life of dignity for all. And that life is one with sanitation for all.