WSP Manager on the Economics of Sanitation

By Jaehyang So 

Every year in mid-August, the world’s leading water experts gather to focus on one subject that preoccupies the international community. This year, the Stockholm International Water Institute is hosting those experts in World Water Week as they turn their attention to the under-appreciated yet critical development issue of sanitation.

Society has developed an acceptable, however inexact, vocabulary to describe the toilet. “Restroom,” “loo,” “water closet,” “the facilities”—they all describe what the United Nations and the development community refer to as “improved sanitation,” another, more pleasant phrase used to describe access to something resembling a latrine. 

The appalling fact, however, is that according to the UNICEF and WHO Joint Monitoring Programme, 2.5 billion people, or roughly 38 percent of the world’s population, can only dream of such access, for they are the ones without sanitation facilities, often forced to defecate in the open.

Millions of children are dying preventable deaths every year because of diarrheal disease caused by fecal to oral routes of transmission that can be easily obstructed. The economic impact of poor sanitation is also staggering. The Economic Impact of Sanitation in Indonesia, a report issued this week by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), shows that in 2006 negative impacts of poor sanitation cost the country an estimated US$6.3 billion, or 2.3 percent of gross domestic product.  

Previous WSP reports also found significant losses in GDP in Cambodia (7.2%), Lao PDR (6.4%), Philippines (1.5%) and Vietnam (1.3%).

Given that the poor already struggle more to manage the effects of global food and energy prices, conflict and natural disasters, the sanitation challenge remains great. However, Government-led efforts in collaboration with the international community indicate that economic, environmental and social returns on investment in sanitation and water are higher than in other sectors. Recognizing this, the World Bank significantly increased its lending for sanitation and wastewater projects since 2002, currently managing a portfolio of US$4.3billion. Also, a recent WaterAid report reveals that improved sanitation could bring the single greatest reduction in the deaths of children under the age of five. 

New examples of benefits outweighing costs continue to materialize around the world. A separate WSP report demonstrates how communities in Latin America have partnered with private industry to construct wetlands that serve as natural, low-cost wastewater treatment systems. Across South and East Asia, community-led campaigns for collective behavior change are improving access to safe sanitation in many villages that are now proudly 100% open-defecation free.

Peru, Senegal, Tanzania and Vietnam are developing or enhancing programs that teach communities how hand-washing with soap at critical times reduces health problems, with some populations already recording improved health statistics. 

It is clear that the most proven, lasting development solutions are home-grown, and during this year’s World Water Week we propose our partners do just that.

First, government ministries and the local private sector should explore possibilities to catalyze market-based solutions to the provision of sanitation services.  Examples from Ethiopia, Senegal and Bangladesh indicate the potential for developing large-scale sanitation markets using advocacy and demand-driven approaches.  Also, sanitation marketing methods help suppliers better understand consumer preferences and barriers to adopting and using improved sanitation.  

Second, civil society, governments and news media should seek out and report on available information about new sanitation technologies and successful practices. Better awareness and understanding will enable officials to make the case for needed investment from finance ministries, while allowing civil society organizations and the news media to demand accountability, giving a louder voice to the people they represent. 

Finally, we encourage governments, civil society, and the news media in developing nations to support simple and cost-effective campaigns, such as those that promote hand-washing with soap after defecation, after cleaning a child’s bottom, and before cooking, serving food and eating. This simple act can cut diarrheal disease transmission in half.

The next time we look for the nearest toilet, let those in government and representatives of civil society remember we can help give the same basic, human dignity to our neighbors in this global society. It is good economics – but more importantly, it saves lives. 


Contact Name: 
Christopher Walsh
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