Number six among the UN’s most recent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was the vital pledge to ensure universal access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and to end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls, and those in vulnerable situations, by 2030.
As world leaders and policy-makers continue to debate the actions required to achieve this ambitious goal, an estimated 800 children under five years of age die every day from diarrheal diseases caused by a lack of hygienic water and sanitary living conditions.
Poor sanitation is a leading cause of child mortality and this will not improve with almost a billion people still defecating in the open today. In some developing communities, the lack of proper sanitation in schools is one of the leading factors contributing to young girls dropping out of education early.
These are not abstract facts and figures. They represent real people who lack access to basic sanitation – a minimum requirement for not only preserving individual privacy and dignity, but also for mitigating disease and death.
According to the WHO, nearly one third of the global population, or 2.1 billion people, have gained access to an improved sanitation facility over the past decade, and diarrhea is no longer among the five leading causes of death worldwide for the total population. And yet, we are nowhere near where we should be on addressing this global human disaster.
The gravity of the situation has already elevated the global sanitation and hygiene crisis to the top of the agenda for some global leaders.
Last year, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed the problem with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates during talks over a climate change deal. Prime Minister Modi has vowed to end open defecation in India, while Bill and Melinda Gates have recognized sanitation improvement as a key focus of their foundation.
Some experts have argued that traditional efforts through charities and foundations are hampered by short-term planning and lack of sufficient funding, and therefore struggle to reach the scale needed to effect broad-based change.
A big focus of non-governmental agencies in the past has also been on the promotion of proper sanitation education and training; indeed, knowledge is vital to tackling this challenge. Fundamentally, however, people in resource-poor communities cannot afford the money to build proper toilets.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may have provided the first major financial support for sanitation and hygiene projects. Already, across developing communities around the world, we are seeing a proliferation of pilot projects with good intentions, but with few to lead and maintain them with sustainable accountability.
Corporations can and must play a bigger role to help tackle the current crisis in global sanitation and hygiene.
Many governments and NGOs are playing leading roles, but corporations with technical expertise, capability and resources need to step up to collaborate and, where possible, drive solutions to redouble the efforts of our public sector advocates. There are three compelling reasons why:
1) Corporations have the global scale and reach around the world, including in communities where individuals who most need basic sanitation live without it.
2) Corporations have technical innovations to deliver product and/or device solutions that can contribute to solving the large, and often complex, global sanitation crisis.
3) Corporations are equipped with the expertise in marketing and market development. These are critical skillsets to drive demand for proper sanitation, through changing traditional ways-of-living of a community, beyond just awareness.
LIXIL is addressing this pressing global problem, building a number of sanitation products to fit different markets and income levels in developing nations.
One solution, originally developed by LIXIL’s American Standard, is the plastic SaTo (for ‘Safe Toilet’) series of products, which feature a counterweighted trapdoor that fits over the hole in the concrete slab and allows waste to flow through, while sealing shut to keep out flies, other insects and odors.
Sold at less than $2 each, LIXIL is among a growing number of companies turning its attention to frugal innovations that serve the needs of consumers in resource-poor communities.
Our SaTo series of products that have placed over 4 million people on the first step to accessing basic sanitation over the last 3 years. Our aim is to promote and enable access to safe and hygienic sanitation to positively impact the lives of 100 million people around the world by 2020.
Our approach to contributing to this challenge is based on two core principles: first is technical leadership, where our sanitation solutions are designed and developed by in-house product development engineers and other experts with decades of experience in water technology and sanitary ware.
The second core principle is the development of a sustainable social business model with a full-time leader assigned who is empowered to drive the initiative forward, working directly with governments, NGOs, and funding partners to scale this social business to reach as many of the billion people who await a basic sanitation system.
With ‘frugal innovation’ at the core of what we do, our products are sold at close to cost, and the funds reinvested back into the SaTo business, in order to enable a virtuous cycle that supports sustainable action and continued innovation.
Everyone, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances or infrastructural challenges, deserves the right to have access to basic sanitation and hygiene. Sometimes, broader systemic issues such as plumbing and sewage infrastructure make this very difficult to achieve. But solutions do exist, and we must do all we can in the meantime to tackle this global crisis.
Employees, customers and stakeholders are increasingly expecting us to take real actions to improve the economic and social conditions in the communities where we operate.
Our report, Reforms to Accelerate the Development of India’s Smart Cities, is available here.