Water Sanitation Health

Sanitation challenge: Turning commitment into reality

Taking responsibility for the environment

Human well-being requires a healthy environment. Inadequate sanitation practices negatively impact the environment. For poor families living in congested urban slums and in villages, the lack of any sanitation facility means that waste lies on the streets, clogs the drains and creates an immediate local hazard – as well as creating optimum conditions for the growth of disease vectors. Waterborne sewage uses scarce freshwater resources and may contaminate surface waters when it is discharged into the environment without adequate treatment – thus endangering downstream users and aquatic resources.

Finding technologies that safeguard the environment and maximise the potential of waste products to be reused at the local level will have a major impact on the long-term sustainability of sanitation systems and processes. Ecologically sustainable technologies have been widely promoted within the development community. The benefits of these systems are that they use little water, they treat the wastes and they facilitate the beneficial use of scarce resources. The carefully managed use of wastewater in agriculture and in other applications also has environmental and health benefits.

What can we do?

National governments can finance public-good elements of sanitation, including wastewater treatment where needed; create incentives for local government to minimise water use through reuse and responsible planning and management; finance research into environmentally improved technologies and approaches; finance water quality surveillance and environmental monitoring; establish the framework and procedures for health impact assessment (HIA) of development projects, with sanitation as a key safeguard; and provide adequate funds to environmental regulators to ensure that they have the capacity to make sound judgements about the balance of local and wider environmental sanitation needs.

District/local governments can find innovative ways of balancing and delivering local sanitation and environmental management; create incentives for communities and industries to improve protection of water sources at the local level; and establish mechanisms to fund and implement wastewater treatment.

Communities and civil society can identify and propose new approaches that would maximise safe reuse and minimise environmental hazards; educate and promote the idea of wider environmental management; support government efforts to balance local needs with wider environmental concerns; and champion the needs of the unserved.

Households can develop local ideas and solutions, where appropriate, that may improve safety and environmental practices; and adopt safe, environmentally-friendly household sanitation technologies.

Entrepreneurs can invest in research and development of better sanitation technologies that minimise environmental impacts and long-term negative effects.

International organisations can compile and disseminate information on safe and environmentally-friendly sanitation practices; and coordinate health and environmental impact assessments prior to implementation of development programmes. Multilateral development banks and bilateral donors can provide funding for appropriate wastewater treatment technologies.

We’re inspired by…

The direct relationship between poor sanitation services and the marine environment has been recognised and addressed by the United Nations system through the establishment of the Global Program of Action for Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA). Overseen by UNEP, and including WHO, UNDP, FAO, GEF, IAEA, IMO, UNESCO, UNIDO, WMO and the World Bank as partners, GPA has provided a framework for governments to plan and implement coordinated actions to prevent land-based pollution from reaching and adversely affecting estuarine and coastal ecosystems. At Johannesburg, the centrality of this initiative was recognised with a call to “achieve substantial progress to protect the marine environment from land-based activities by the next GPA intergovernmental review in 2006 … with particular emphasis on municipal wastewater”. Under the GPA’s Strategic Action Plan on Municipal Wastewater, UNEP, WHO, HABITAT and WSSCC jointly developed ten keys for local and national action, and associated guidelines on municipal wastewater management, as well as a training module on the same subject.

... ecological sanitation in San Luis Beltrán in Mexico
In this periurban barrio in Oaxaca, Mexico, dry toilets with urine diversion have become a universal sight; whereas in the late 1980s, when the idea was first introduced, the population was keener to have a waterborne sewerage system. The local committee was convinced that the system would work after they saw 35 demonstration units working well. Technical inputs from a national NGO and support from the Ministry of Public Works was instrumental in getting the programme off the ground. While some health concerns persist around the safety of “ecological” toilets, they clearly represent an important avenue for continued monitoring and research.

… the UN-HABITAT Water for African Cities Programme
UN-HABITAT’s Water for African Cities Programme was the first comprehensive effort to improve water and sanitation management in African cities. UN-HABITAT and UNEP initiated this programme in 1999. The World Bank, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and Finland supported the programme in subsequent years. Within a short time, the initiative made a significant impact in seven African cities through its awareness campaigns, advocacy and educational initiatives. With a strong demand-side focus, a flexible framework for regional cooperation and interagency collaboration was established. The programme supports practical demonstrations in the areas of water demand management, protection of water resources from the impacts of urbanisation and improved information and awareness on key water and sanitation issues. It has demonstrated the possibility of conserving water resources and has developed new management approaches to local catchment management. The project activities have addressed novel approaches to urban sanitation and, in particular, unblocking the constraints to successful scale-up and replication.

Sources: UNEP/WHO/HABITAT/WSSCC (2004). Guidelines on municipal wastewater management. The Hague, United Nations Environment Programme;
UNESCO/IHE (2004). Training manual on improving municipal wastewater management in coastal cities. The Hague, United Nations Environment Programme (www.gpa.unep.org);
Esrey SA et al, eds (1998). Ecological sanitation. Stockholm, Swedish International Cooperation Agency;
Water for African Cities Programme information available at http://www.unhabitat.org/programmes/water/