Environmental Protection through Sanitation

Over 500,000 tonnes of faeces are openly defecated every day to the environment around the world. That’s enough to fill the 30,000-seat Stade de Genève, where the Euro 2008 football tournament kicks off this weekend, three times over. But the global sanitation crisis is not a mere game: it pollutes the very environment upon which humans depend. Providing toilets and protecting the environment would be a winning combination for people and planet, says the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC).

“Each year, more than 200 million tonnes of human waste go uncollected and untreated around the world, fouling the environment and exposing millions of people to disease and squalor,” says Jon Lane, WSSCC Executive Director. “On World Environment Day, midway through the International Year of Sanitation, WSSCC is calling for governments, stakeholders and individuals around the world to accelerate the work to end these ongoing human and environmental catastrophes.”

Doing so, he says, requires neither colossal sums of money nor breakthrough scientific discoveries. Using existing, proven approaches and technologies, and for about US$ 10 billion a year – less than 1 percent of global military expenditure – the world could meet the Millennium Development Goal sanitation target to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to basic sanitation. And around ten years later, everyone could have a toilet to use. “Achieving universal sanitation can, with proper financing, be accomplished through hard work on the ground, plain talk about toilets, strong leadership at all levels, and by creating demand for toilets among the 2.6 billion poor people who need them,” says Lane.

Toilets, washing facilities, garbage removal, wastewater disposal, stormwater drainage: sanitation services such as these are a prerequisite for clean, healthy household and community living environments, particularly in dense settlements. Such sanitation services are also vital to safeguard environmental quality more broadly, especially the quality of water resources. The cost is high, conversely, where sanitation services are lacking. Water pollution stemming from poor sanitation costs Southeast Asia more than US$ 2 billion per year, and in Indonesia and Vietnam creates environmental costs of more than US$ 200 million annually, primarily from the loss of productive land.

A healthy living environment depends on sanitary toilets
In teeming informal settlements across the globe, the sanitation crisis is keenly felt. With no way to safely dispose of either faeces or garbage, around a billion slum dwellers must resort to “flying toilets” (also known as “wrap and throw”) and to dumping trash in public spaces. This situation is not limited to urban settlements; in impoverished city suburbs, small market towns, large villages and periurban settlements across the developing world, the public environment is full of waste.

The contents of bucket-latrines and pits, even of sewers, are often emptied into the streets. A recent study of Indonesia, for example, found that roughly one in ten people are exposed to open sewers and the open dumping of solid waste, and more than four in ten to open defecation sites. Poor sanitation creates a host of health hazards as well as a bleak and disheartening visual landscape. Roads are full of mud, puddles, and piles of garbage and debris, not to mention disease-carrying insects, microbes and rodents. The odours are often unpleasant.

Imagine a community of 10,000 inhabitants, 30 percent of whom practice open defecation. Since each person produces 150 grams of faeces a day, open defecation would result in 450 kg daily or more than 3 tonnes a week – or 100 full dump trucks’ worth of human excrement annually – deposited in the community. Living in a squalid environment harms physical and psychological health; is stigmatising; often presents employment challenges; and deepens human poverty. A healthy living environment, one that supports human dignity and is free of disease-transmitting agents and conditions, is impossible without sanitation services.

Sanitary toilets aid environmental sustainability
Human waste enters water sources and land through open defecation, dumping of buckets, inadequate disposal via sewer pipes into water courses and onto unused land, and leakage from pit latrines. In the developing world, roughly 90 percent of sewage is discharged untreated into rivers, polluting waters and killing plants and fish. In Southeast Asia alone, 13 million tonnes of faeces are released to inland water sources each year, along with 122 million m3 of urine and 11 billion m3 of greywater. This presents a major health threat to people who depend upon open streams and wells for their drinking water as well as an economic blow to people whose livelihoods depend upon fisheries. Upstream water users find better quality water, whereas downstream users find “sewage sinks”. Water quality is worse near densely populated areas.

Reusing waste has many benefits
Sanitation involves a range of actions, but for a healthy environment – in communities as well as in the larger natural world – the top priority is separating excreta, with its host of biological pathogens, from contact with human beings as well as plant and animal life. In areas where it is practised, ending open defecation is a critical first step. But to fully realise the health, social, and economic benefits, the management of wastes must be considered. Conventional sewerage can now be supplemented with ecological sanitation technologies that make use of the nutrients in human waste. These range from simple “arbor-loos” (where a tree is planted on the latrine pit) to urine-diverting toilets that produce fertiliser from urine and safely composted faeces. Anaerobic digestion of sewage to produce biogas for energy is another option.

In China today, for example, 90 percent of human excreta is used in agriculture; the task is to make sure that raw sewage is not put on the fields. Chinese farming communities have proved open to the idea of urine-diverting, or “dry”, toilets that facilitate the re-use of excreta as fertiliser.

To support the awareness-raising effort on this and other key sanitation messages, the UN-Water Task Force on Sanitation has launched an advocacy and media kit in English, French and Spanish. Task Force Members include the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO), Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP), UNEP, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN–HABITAT), United Nations University (UNU), and WSSCC.

World Environment Day, commemorated each year on 5 June and supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is one of the principal vehicles through which the United Nations stimulates worldwide awareness of the environment and enhances political attention and action.

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