Children in a school in West Java, Indonesia, wash their hands

Children in a school in West Java, Indonesia, wash their hands. Photo: Sheryl Silverman / World Bank, Flickr.

Access to decent sanitation is often a matter of life and death. And according to the World Bank, the costs associated with inadequate water supply and sanitation – in health, lost productivity, environmental damage, lost tourist revenue and many more – are around US$260 billion annually. This is hardly news. So why, amid all the progress of the past 15 years and more, are billions of people still unable to access adequate sanitation?

It is telling that while combating disease, and especially infant mortality, remains a high-profile aim of global development efforts, the most cost-effective way of doing so – safe sanitation and wastewater management – is rarely mentioned in the same breath, let alone the same budget discussions. The latest UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water reports that water and sanitation together comprise just 6.1% of total development aid commitments, putting them behind health, education, transport, energy, government and civil society, and agriculture sectors. Only a quarter of the water and sanitation commitments are for sanitation.

The fact is that sanitation and wastewater management just don’t have the appeal for many decision-makers or investors and as one result, they tend to lose out when there’s any question of a trade-off of funding or time; who wants to cut the ribbon on a new sewage treatment plant, when they could do the same on a new hospital, nature reserve or highway?

Forget the trade-offs, look at the synergies

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did a lot for sanitation coverage, but far from enough – ‘halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to . . . basic sanitation’ was one of the most notably missed targets. There are several reasons to hope that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – will have greater success in promoting sanitation.

Source: ODI Development Progress, and Deliver2030.org, UK