Water Sanitation Health

Speech by Dr Beate Elsa Wilhelm, SDC Assistant Director-General

Address to commemorate World Water Day, Geneva, Switzerland, 20 March 2008

His Royal Highness, Prince Willem-Alexander, Dr. Margaret Chan Director-General of WHO, distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen,

Switzerland very much welcomes the United Nations’ decision to dedicate this year’s World Water Day to the global sanitation situation. It is time to shed light on an issue we don’t like to talk about. Addressing the sanitation crisis on a large scale first needs a mental shift. It is definitively time to break the sanitation taboo in order to pave the way for massive improvements and progress in this area.

It is time to recognize on a global level that upgrading sanitation services in the poorest neighborhoods is in the self-interest of society since it eliminates incubators of disease. The esteemed British Medical Journal recently named public sanitation the world’s “greatest medical breakthrough”.

Indeed, the fact that we are clearly not on track to meet the sanitation target of the Millennium Development Goals is seriously worrying. Sanitation is not only a prerequisite and a driver for health and development; it is also a fundament of human dignity, especially for women and girls. Lack of proper sanitation facilities keeps millions of girls away from school and from education; girls and women also risk harassment and assault when defecating in the open, particularly at night.

Not only access to water but also to sanitation and hygiene is a Human Right. And this is not mere rhetoric. Recognizing this Human Right does not mean that Governments have to provide toilet facilities to everybody - this approach has largely failed - but that they have to make everything possible to create an enabling environment that permits an affordable access to toilets for all families, invest in awareness campaigns and consider as a first priority to equip all schools, health centers and other public places that are strategic to development.

To recognize this Human Right is also to make sure that the investments do not marginalize part of the population (which is unfortunately often the case when expensive sewerage systems are built in the developing world). But this right should also be recognized by enterprises that should be correctly equipped and enable their employees to have access to basic sanitation services. This Human Right approach is a driver for Swiss interventions.

Too often Sanitation is viewed as a symptom of poverty rather than as a driver of development and poverty reduction. Despite the fact that sanitation is one of the most cost-effective public interventions for the improvement of health, particularly of children, it has been largely overlooked by the decision makers at all levels (government, development agencies, health sector etc.). We expect that this Year of Sanitation will convince Governments of the economic value to invest in sanitation.

For Switzerland’s development cooperation (in particular for SDC and SECO), Sanitation as such and its interlinkages with drinking water, water for food and integrated water resource management are a priority. Moreover, we are putting more and more emphasis on this vital issue and increasing our efforts in our bilateral projects and international cooperation.

Besides, we very welcome and are going to support with substantial financing the Global Fund for Sanitation launched last week here in Geneva by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). We are now in a position to announce a first financing commitment of SDC to this Fund in 2008.

The WSSCC has always been one of the main advocates of sanitation; its network has a large experience in this field. The WSSCC is thus certainly best positioned, with its host the WHO, to manage and drive this Global Fund. Switzerland has been at the start of the WSSCC 25 years ago and we are proud that this council has taken the responsibility to develop a tool to seriously respond to the sanitation challenges with a particular focus on the poor.

The return of investment in sanitation is evidenced by the historical development of Switzerland. Our ancestors in Switzerland and other European countries used to live in dramatic hygiene and sanitary conditions until the midth of the 19th century. Cholera epidemics killed numbers of people during this period, spreading fear. The large investments done in sanitation and hygiene promotion at the end of the 19th century enabled to put an end to the cholera epidemics in our country and marked the beginning of a rapid socio-economic development phase.

Switzerland has achieved a high level not only in sanitation coverage but also in wastewater treatment quality and environmental health over the last 150 years. But we still have to invest to maintain and develop our systems. With an infrastructure worth around 15’000 CHF per capita current replacement value and with operating costs of 250 CHF per capita, sanitation requires continuous significant investment. Furthermore, new forms of micro-pollution e.g. through hormones can jeopardize the ecosystem even in very weak concentration posing new challenges and triggering additional investments.

We are trying to develop innovative, more sustainable solutions to face these new challenges. This experience can help us contribute to support the sanitation sector in developing and emerging countries not only with financial means but also with new approaches. There is no doubt that we will continue to do all we can to expand sanitation coverage and to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in sanitation.

To support the important goals of the International Year of Sanitation 2008, Switzerland is also about to launch a national campaign involving public and private sector partners. This national campaign helps to create awareness for the critical issue of sanitation and its role in sustainable development. It is one small contribution towards overcoming the sanitation taboo, to show how progress can be achieved and to mobilize additional investments.

Ladies and Gentlemen, as I mentioned at the beginning, the global sanitation challenge is not a sexy issue. But a serious one. We can only cope with it by strengthening our collective engagement: governments, donors, private sector, and civil society. And nothing is as cost-effective and as valuable as investments in water and sanitation. They provide dignity to human beings and help to prevent diseases whose cure would cost many times more.

Thank you!