Ban called on the international community to take firmer and faster steps to tackle the problem and said the flow of positive results would extend far beyond better access to clean water.
"Every dollar invested in water and sanitation yields an estimate seven dollars worth of productive activity," said Ban. "And that comes on top of the immeasurable gains in cutting poverty, improving health and raising living standards."
The secretary-general called it "unconscionable" that a child dies on average every 20 seconds because of sub-standard sanitation conditions that are preventable - a situation endured by an estimated 2.6 billion people worldwide, or more than a third of the global population.
A girl carries water home in the village of Bayt Misheyeh, Lebanon. (Photo courtesy UNICEF)
"Poor sanitation combines with a lack of safe drinking water and inadequate hygiene to contribute to the terrible global death toll," Ban mourned. "Those who survive face diminished chances of living a healthy and productive existence. Children, especially girls, are forced to stay out of school, while hygiene-related diseases keep adults from engaging in productive work."
Over 60 percent of Africans lack access to a proper toilet, according to the United Nations World Health Organization and UN Children's Fund in a joint message for World Water Day, whose 2008 theme is Sanitation Matters.
"Sanitation is a cornerstone of public health," said Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. "Improved sanitation contributes enormously to human health and wellbeing, especially for girls and women."
Of the 2.6 billion people without toilets in their homes, nearly 1 billion of them are children.
"The absence of adequate sanitation has a serious impact on health and social development, especially for children," said Ann Veneman, UNICEF executive director.
“Good sanitation doesn’t mean expensive sanitation,” said UNICEF’s Chief of Water and Environmental Sanitation, Clarissa Brocklehurst. “It can be a very simple pit latrine, a well-sealed hole in the ground. That’s just as good as a flush toilet.”
Boys walk toward a latrine provided by UNICEF in the village of Kobelema, Liberia. (Photo courtesy UNICEF)
Halving the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals devised at a global leaders' summit in 2000, but the world is far behind the pace to achieve that by the target date of 2015, Ban said.
"Experts predict that by 2015, 2.1 billion people will still lack basic sanitation," he said. "At the present rate, sub-Saharan Africa will not reach the target until 2076."
Population growth, widespread poverty and insufficient investment are among the key obstacles, but the secretary-general noted that "the biggest culprit" is the lack of political will.
Events were held around the world this weekend to highlight World Water Day. At UN Headquarters in Geneva the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, WSSCC, staged a public toilet queue demonstration to raise awareness about the sanitation crisis around the globe.
Guest of honor, Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands who chairs the UN Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, joined the queue and expressed once more his support of breaking the silence and taboo around the global sanitation crisis.
On March 14, the WSSCC launched the Global Sanitation Fund, the first global financing mechanism to increase expenditure on sanitation and hygiene.
WSSCC Executive Director Jon Lane stresses that the Global Sanitation Fund is demand driven and people centered.
Lack of sanitation is a daily problem for residents of communities like this. (Photo courtesy Water and Sanitation Health)
"The Global Sanitation Fund will not embark on the construction of kilometers of sewerage pipes and other huge construction projects, since top-down investments in the sanitation sector don't reach the poorest people," said Lane. "The Global Sanitation Fund will support programs that have been developed through decision-making processes involving local communities and will concentrate on hygiene education, raising awareness and creating demand."
Pollution generated by sewage, much of which ends up in coastal waters, leads an economic loss of $16 billion annually and is estimated to cause four million lost "man-years" yearly in terms of human ill-health, said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme in a message for the Day.
"In many developed countries, part of the answer over the past half century has been found in ever more sophisticated, multi-million dollar water treatment works," he said.
But as projects such as one at the Shimo la Tewa jail in Mombasa, a city on the Kenyan coast, highlight that there are less costly solutions to the problem that are beneficial for other reasons, Steiner observed.
In this project, inmates work with nature to neutralize human wastes by using wetland-filtered water, called "black wastewater," for irrigation and fish farming, providing a source of protein which can be consumed or sold to local markets.
Additionally, this wastewater - containing high concentrations of human waste - will also be used to produced biogas, which can be serve as fuel for cooking, heating and lighting. This could slash the costs of the 4,000 person prison and curb emissions.
The scheme in Mombasa, which is also expected to help wildlife such as birds and marine organisms, has a price tag of $25 per person served, which is significantly less than projects in developed countries, Steiner said. "It is hoped that the lessons learn can be applied to other parts of the world so that the multiple challenges of sanitation and pollution can, in part, be viewed through a nature-based lens."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.