Keeping it clean: the vital role of water and sanitation

Sanjay Bhatnagar
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Clean drinking water and good sanitation are vital to human health. Yet in 2010 about 2.5 billion people did not have access to decent sanitation facilities, and 1.4 billion lacked access to safe drinking water.

About one billion of these live in urban slums, while population growth and rapid urbanization is making the problem more acute.

Poor sanitation is a major cause of disease and a key indicator of urban poverty. More children die of diarrhoea, a preventable condition directly linked to faecal exposure, than of AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

Experts agree that better sanitation could drastically decrease, and eventually end, the occurrence of these easily preventable conditions, while bringing a host of other development benefits. Every dollar spent on improving sanitation generates nine times the amount in economic benefit.

By some estimates achieving the Millennium Development Goal for sanitation would save us US$ 66 billion in time, productivity, averted illness and death.

So how are we trying to improve things? The most promising initiatives understand that water, sanitation and waste management are interdependent, requiring an integrated management approach.

For example, there is now recognition that excreta and waste-water are valuable resources that can be reused and recycled. In fact, not only are we reducing the energy consumed in waste and waste-water treatment, we are learning how to extract energy from waste products.

Innovative lavatory designs are helping to conserve water, while increased use of rainwater tanks is helping to reduce the necessary size of storm water pipes. We are beginning to manage demand through policies that promote water-saving devices and encourage water conservation. Such policies, in turn, help to reduce the capacity requirements of sanitation systems.

There are a number of examples of innovative sanitation schemes in India, Kenya, Australia, Singapore, Mexico and Abu Dhabi. You can read more about them in a longer version of this article here.

Governments need to work closely with private sector companies to find solutions that fit their own specific circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Decentralized waste management systems customized to suit local environments are proving more cost-effective than network models in some cases.

While technology is important, management and education are even more important. Each community, region or country needs to work out the most appropriate and cost-effective way of implementing sanitation in the short and long term, and then act accordingly. Countries at different stages of development have different priorities.

Whatever stage a country is at, the implementation of innovative technology is a must, as are new financial instruments to upgrade legacy systems. With the right institutional support on finance, policy and governance, sanitation could become a significant economic and business opportunity.

Author: Sanjay Bhatnagar CEO, WaterHealth International, Member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Water Security.

You can read a longer version of this article and join in the debate at Rio+20 Dialogues (registration required).

For more about the Rio+20 Conference click here

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