Why Opening a New Community Toilet Should Be Glamorous

Opening the new community toilet may lack the glamour of cutting the ribbon on a new hospital, so fewer politicians lobby for their communities to gain sanitation.
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Nestling in the shadow of a magnificent avenue of giant baobab trees is a school that helps encapsulate how thinking around water and sanitation provision needs to change if the world is to meet the goal of universal access by 2030.

Up until three years ago, the Tsimahavoabe school in western Madagascar had neither a safe water supply nor any toilets. Pupils and teachers needing to relieve themselves during the day had to use the bushes behind the school.

Without any safe water available to drink, pupils were often dehydrated during the day, thus becoming sleepy and unable to concentrate.

Three years after bringing toilets and safe water to the school, WaterAid revisited to see whether it had made a difference.

Wearing a broad-brimmed sunhat, teacher Mariette Razanamparany beamed as she told us how the water and toilets had transformed the school. Attendance had gone up and parents felt much more positive about sending their children, who were much more active and motivated. But also it had had a real effect on how she felt about working at the school. Previously she said she had found it hard to teach at the school, feeling uncomfortable about having nowhere private to go to the toilet. Using neighbors' toilets and walking to fetch water had meant that she had to leave pupils for long periods of time, so affecting their education. But with the new toilets and water supply, the school was now able to attract more teachers.

This small school helps to encapsulate how those striving to bring about universal access need to make sure that water, sanitation and hygiene issues emerge out of the silo and become mainstreamed, seen as an essential element of the drive to eradicate extreme poverty through improving education, healthcare, gender equality, malnutrition rates and so on.

What this school shows is the added value of bringing water to a community. Hydrated and with a toilet close at hand, the pupils are more able to study, helped by teachers attracted to the school by better working conditions. School attendance goes up, in part because pupils get sick less often now that open defecation is reduced but also because school is now a nicer place to be. Girls are less likely to drop out at puberty, knowing that they will be able to deal with their periods in privacy. Thus you are more likely to end up with better-educated young adults with all the benefits that brings to society, economy and future generations.

Bring safe water to a community and you can free up hours of time for women who no longer have to walk to collect river water that may then make them and their family sick. Those new pockets of time could be used to start a new business helping their family to escape extreme poverty, increasing their children's life chances and helping, in a small but vital way, to boost their country's economy.

Just under 40 percent of all healthcare facilities in Africa do not have access to even rudimentary levels of water, increasing the risk of infection and making it much harder to provide a hygienic environment that aids recovery.

Until every hospital and health clinic has safe water and sanitation, then any attempt to improve healthcare is immediately undermined and the effectiveness of any investment in new equipment, staff or treatments severely reduced. Patients will take longer to recover, costing the economy in missed working days and additional costs to the health service.

We call this the ripple effect -- how the impact of safe water and sanitation touches so many aspects of life and economies. Yet it is often overlooked by those planning investment.

Too often, the water ministry is a poorly funded backwater of government lacking in the prestige of, say, education or health. Opening the new community toilet may lack the glamour of cutting the ribbon on a new hospital, so fewer politicians lobby for their communities to gain sanitation.

To help overcome this historic disadvantage, we need to make sure that the responsibility for ensuring safe water and sanitation is shared by, for example, every headmaster, hospital chief or town planner, and it becomes inconceivable that a new school or hospital could be built without these basic services. To bring real change, we need the role water and sanitation can play in lifting communities out of poverty to be recognized by every finance minister. After all, it is estimated that for every $1 invested in providing clean water, the economy receives a $4 productivity boost.

We will not meet the 2015 goal unless we redouble our efforts. As a sector, we must seek new sources of funding, work with new partnerships and be bolder in holding others to account, as well as being prepared to be held to account by others.

The goal is ambitious, but when it is met, it will be a truly historic moment.

Barbara Frost has been Chief Executive of WaterAid since 2005. The international development agency's vision is of a world where everyone has access to safe water and sanitation and works in 37 countries across Africa, Asia, Central America and the Pacific Region. Prior to joining WaterAid, Ms Frost was Chief Executive of Action on Disability and Development.

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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