Global Health

How do we tackle the world’s $220bn hygiene problem?

A boy stands at a public toilet at Kibera slum in Kenya's capital Nairobi August 15, 2008. Many such local facilities have been provided by aid organizations working to improve the living conditions in poor areas. REUTERS/Noor Khamis (KENYA) - RTR215Z0

The most frugal solutions are often the most effective Image: REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Kinya Seto
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Poor sanitation comes with a $222.9 billion price tag and, as CEO of one of the world’s largest toilet manufacturers, I have a personal duty to tackle this immense crisis. Premature death accounts for more than half of that figure – this is a story of human tragedy. We must shift our thinking and start seeing sanitation as more than just a bad smell. This is about fighting the biggest killer of children in the developing world.

The Millennium Development Goal on sanitation was among the furthest goal from being achieved. We now have a new global goal: “To achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation by 2030.” Let us now align in a plan of attack – we must. How can a world with the talent to develop video games in high definition 3D and a computer that sits on your wrist accept the startling fact that one-third of the planet is without a safe and clean toilet?

I cannot sit by and continue to watch as thousands of people die daily from sanitation-related diseases. That’s why LIXIL has committed to improve sanitation for 100 million people by 2020. In doing so, I truly believe that we will help both the world and my company. We can do well by doing good.

Defining the issue

The issue of hygiene and sanitation is complex: millions lack access to infrastructure and sewer systems and we don’t have solutions that are appropriate in the context of the developing world. We can’t just use solutions from developed markets, but instead need to innovate and create solutions designed with local environmental considerations and cultural norms in mind. In many cases, we’ve found that frugal innovations – simple, smart and, above all, affordable – are the most effective.

Beyond hardware, there is a vital need for a behavioural shift to convince the 950 million people who still defecate in the open on a daily basis of the benefits of using a toilet. This job is as important as making the facilities available. Sanitation is a strain on the environment from a water and waste perspective. If we are to find sustainable solutions, then we must consider how we can conserve resources and repurpose by-products into something useful.

Have you read?

Solving the crisis starts with understanding it. A tremendous amount of work has already been done by multiple stakeholders, but it is clear that there is no single solution. There are many moving parts and many aspects of the problem that need to be addressed, and as such the risk is that the global community has become inherently fragmented in how it defines and approaches the issue.

But here is the dilemma: is this fragmentation the core challenge – are we a community in need of direction? Or do we need to understand that sanitation is one of the most multifaceted human rights challenges and pioneer a new approach? No issue is ever truly self-contained and to have experts from every discipline working towards a solution must be a force for good.

Aligning for the future

Sanitation will always be multidimensional and we must grasp this. But if we can align the global community on how to tackle this great challenge, we will save lives.

  • We must innovate to develop effective solutions, from hardware that is designed for the context in which it will be used to novel thinking about supply chains and logistics, right through to marketing and financing. Every single player’s expertise can and should be exploited for the betterment of millions.
  • We must put sanitation at the top of the political agenda. Creating a sustainable system requires national governments to establish conditions for change and to allocate the necessary resources. Meanwhile, organizations outside of government should lobby for change to ensure the momentum generated by the Sustainable Development Goals is not lost.
  • We must continue to seek collaboration and coordination across this diverse set of players and issues. If we all adopt collaborative behaviours, with coordinated efforts led by national governments, we can ensure funding and brainpower is put behind the most promising solutions.

The moral and economic arguments around the issue of poor sanitation are such that we must continue seeking ways to strengthen collaboration and increase our efforts. During this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, I ask others to join me to shape the direction of global efforts, as we embark upon this great task.

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