The One Vital Area of Development That Should Shame and Shock Us All

Diarrhea kills 2,195 children every day -- more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. And nearly 88 percent of diarrhea can be traced to unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.
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Over the last 30 years, the percentage of developing-world citizens living on less than $1.25 per day has more than halved from 50% to 17%, despite a substantial increase in the population. However, despite the progress made in reducing global poverty, improving gender equality, and education, there is one vital area of development in this era of unprecedented global prosperity that should shame and shock us all.

There are currently 2.4 billion people who live without access to adequate sanitation, 1 billion people who currently defecate in the open, and 748 million people who live without access to improved drinking water. Despite 6 billion mobile-phone subscriptions, only 4.5 billion people have access to a flush toilet.

Lack of access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) has direct health implications -- diarrhea kills 2,195 children every day -- more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. The tragedy is that it is also preventable. Nearly 88 percent of diarrhea can be traced to unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

In 2002, the international community acknowledged the importance of sanitation by including it in the Millennium Development Goals. However, as the deadline looms, the world is waking up to the sad fact that the target is going to be missed by half a billion people.

This is a human-rights crisis of enormous proportions. But the challenge is not only a moral one. Sanitation and hygiene are critical enablers of health, social and economic development in the poorest and most marginalized corners of the world.

In addition, this is a cross-cutting issue that can further other development goals, including poverty reduction, education, health, equality, women's empowerment, productivity and sustainable cities.

Good sanitation can be a powerful and cost-effective engine of economic growth. A mere fraction of the global-development budget could provide access to basic sanitation to all the people in the world in two or three decades. In fact, World Bank research indicates that hygiene is the most economical health intervention available, and can reduce extreme poverty at very little cost. For every $1 spent on sanitation & hygiene, approximately $5.50-worth of economic benefits are generated, including school days gained, and a reduction in medical expenditure.

We simply cannot wait to take action. It is time that politicians and decision-makers in the health sector recognize the importance of WASH. As we enter into the era of post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, it is our collective responsibility to invest in solutions and to make sanitation for all a development priority. It is no longer up for debate -- world leaders simply must commit both political and financial capital to achieve universal and sustainable access to WASH by 2030.

In order to secure this commitment, sanitation practitioners need to reach outside the traditional WASH sector, to garner support from finance, health, education, and tourism sectors. Transforming awareness and investment will require a wide coalition, beyond the traditional halls of development.

One of the answers lies in innovative financing methods for development, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the Global Sanitation Fund (GSF), and the Vaccine Alliance (GAVI).

The GSF, a fund administered by my organization, the UNOPS-hosted Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), invests in behavior-change activities that enable large numbers of people in developing countries to improve their sanitation and adopt good hygiene practices. The only global fund solely dedicated to sanitation and hygiene, the GSF is light of foot and heavy on scale. Households and local governments work with local entrepreneurs and a network of hundreds of partners. Together, they create the conditions for tens of millions of people to live in open-defecation-free environments and access adequate toilets and handwashing facilities.

This September, we must all reaffirm our commitment to a vision where everybody has sustained sanitation and good hygiene. Sanitation interventions are one of the most effective ways to improve the health, economic prosperity and dignity of the world's most disadvantaged populations. It is not merely the right thing to do. It is essential for guaranteeing a world of equal rights, sustainable development, and dignity for all.

Chris W. Williams is the Executive Director of the Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council, the UN's only body devoted to the sanitation and hygiene needs of vulnerable and marginalized people around the world.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 6.

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