One of the greatest challenges faced by humankind is to improve the well-being of the 2.6 billion people – which account for half the population of the developing world – lacking access to basic sanitation. Despite increasing rates of sanitation coverage worldwide and significant efforts by governments and the international community, progress towards the MDG target of halving the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation has been slow and uneven. According to the Millennium Development Goals Report 2007, an estimated 1.6 billion people must acquire access to improved sanitation over the period 2005-2015 to meet the MDG target on sanitation. If trends since 1990 continue, the world is likely to miss the target by almost 600 million people.
Access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation services is a pre-requisite for achieving the MDGs on poverty, health, gender and environmental sustainability. Improved sanitation will have a beneficial impact on both human health and the environment. Primary benefits of the provision of sanitation services include enhanced public health, significant reduction of water-borne diseases and breaking of their transmission routes, and through this the prevention of premature death of millions of people. Better sanitation also results in enhanced human development, dignity, privacy and safety, particularly of women and girls, and greater advancement in gender equality.
The environmental benefits of sanitation are often overlooked. Direct disposal of vast amounts of untreated wastewater and human waste poses a great threat to the health and function of aquatic ecosystems. Improved wastewater management and sanitation will bring enormous benefits for the protection of water resources from pollution by pathogens and other contaminants. There is now an urgent need to address the issue of sanitation in a sustainable manner, involving all stakeholders and, most importantly, local governments and communities, households and investors. Significant advancement has been made in the development of low-cost technologies for sanitation, overcoming the technology barrier which was regarded, in the past, as a main cause of slow progress in ensuring sanitation for all. Mainstreaming sanitation at the national level and prioritizing sanitation in national policies and strategies is a starting point to accelerate progress. Strengthened international partnerships will help leverage investment and provide new technological options.
Through its water-related programmes and activities, UNESCO is actively contributing towards achieving the MDG on water and sanitation. UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme addresses the issue of sanitation in the broader context of sustainable urban water management, by adopting a holistic approach to managing the urban water cycle and by exploring the implications of new approaches to sanitation. UNESCO supports research and capacity building in the fields related to sanitation through postgraduate research and training programmes at UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education.
Within the framework of the International Year of Sanitation, UNESCO reaffirms its commitment to strengthen efforts in tackling water-related sanitation problems through the promotion, dissemination and sharing of knowledge and information and by developing human and institutional capacities. In support of UN-wide initiatives such as UN-Water, World Water Day and the International Year of Sanitation, UNESCO stands ready to strengthen collaboration with Member States and the international community in sanitation-related fields.
On World Water Day, I would like to call on all concerned to work together to achieve the vital MDG targets for water and sanitation. It is my firm belief that further progress in sanitation can only be made through strong commitment and concerted action by all stakeholders and at all levels.