Richard Jolly
describes old fallacies and new directions for water, sanitation and hygiene

Over the last few years developments have been moving fast in the field of water and sanitation. They were gathering momentum at the end of the 1990s. Then in September 2000, at the United Nations Millennium Summit, the target of halving the proportion of those without adequate water supplies by 2015 was made one of the eight Millennium Development Goals. Two years later, water was one of the five key issues – Water, Energy, Health, Agriculture and Biodiversity – at the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development. Water was one of the successes of the Summit, which otherwise received mixed ratings, as it agreed the goal of halving the proportion of people without access to adequate sanitation by 2015.

Meanwhile new commitments have been forged and elaborated in a succession of lively interactions – at three World Water Forums; by a World Water Commission; and by the launch of WASH, a global campaign for Water And Sanitation and Hygiene for all.

Putting the record straight
But in spite of this new-found energy and drive, the task is enormous. And it is not made any easier by a series of fallacies:

1. ‘Sanitation and hygiene are less important than water’. From the viewpoint of health and security, the facts are otherwise. The knowledge and practice of basic hygiene reduces mortality further than either safe water or sanitation alone. All three are needed – but with a better balance. Too often sanitation and hygiene are treated as dirty words, not to be mentioned in polite society.

2. ‘Goals never work’. In spite of gossip to the contrary, most of the 50 or so economic and social goals set by the United Nations over the last 40 years have had a measurable impact, being achieved by a large number of countries. The International Water Supply and Sanitation Decade of the 1980s, for example, stimulated enormous action, nationally and internationally. Though the 1980s were an economic disaster for many countries, the number of people with access to safe water and improved sanitation in developing nations more than doubled. Major improvements were also made in developing low-cost technologies and learning the secrets of maintenance and sustainability.

3. ‘It’s all a matter of hardware and little can be done to promote sanitation and hygiene’. Again, many examples show otherwise. Stimulating demand, promoting awareness and encouraging action can all draw on tried and proven techniques. Encouraging hand-washing alone could save a million lives.

4. ‘Finance is not available and those without water and sanitation are too poor to be able to contribute’. Hundreds of examples show the enormous energy, effort and resources that poor people are willing to contribute to gain access to water and better sanitation, when they have the opportunity.

5. ‘Poor people and poor communities are not interested and have other priorities for survival’. In fact, poor people are highly motivated, both because they want to save the time spent in collecting water and for reasons of dignity and safety. This is especially true for women and girls – which explains why issues of water and sanitation often get neglected or played down in situations or discussions where men dominate.

Community groups need to become active in defining priorities, taking action and pressing for support from local government

Mobilizing stakeholders
So what can be done to accelerate action towards the goals? The priority is not just to provide more of the same but to set new directions and a new agenda, as is being promoted by the WASH campaign.

First, governments need to stimulate and support community action, rather than try to do it all themselves. All stakeholders need to be mobilized – people and communities, the private sector, small-scale entrepreneurs, public and private donors, international agencies – and government at all levels, especially the local one. Action at the local level matters most. Community groups need to become active in defining priorities, taking action and pressing for support from local government.

Second, plans and programmes are needed for achieving the goals. These should not be desk exercises but participatory planning, bringing in all the stakeholders to draw up guidelines for action and define what is required from each of the parties. This can be a win-win exercise for development and politics. Increasing access to water can be one of the most popular government activities, especially with women.

Third, there is a need for new priorities, to learn from the past and to embark on new directions. Some examples:

  • Participation: women in India and elsewhere have shown they can bring new energy and vision to the task after achieving serious representation in local government. In Sudan, women trained as technicians have long demonstrated their capacity to maintain and repair deep tube wells; indeed, they do it better than their male counterparts who, once trained, often leave for towns and cities to seek technical jobs.

  • New approaches: in Bangladesh, the ‘100% sanitation approach’ has demonstrated new ways to mobilize rural communities. Instead of individual advocacy, a non-governmental organization facilitator works with a whole village to identify its sanitation needs. Village leaders, and as many others as can be mustered, walk across the village, stopping and discussing every time they discover faeces or other waste. This may involve some naming and shaming: it is not designed to identify the individual person responsible but to understand the consequences when the village as a whole fails to ensure ways of avoiding behaviour which no one finds acceptable. Action to improve the situation is identified and talked through, but individuals are left to develop their own solutions. This has led to new designs for low-cost latrines and waste disposal.

  • Mobilizing children as agents of change: if schools, churches or mosques get the lessons of basic hygiene across to children, they will spread the messages when they get home. But, for this to be effective, the school must enable children to practice what it preaches. Separate latrines for girls and boys are essential – and a goal of the WASH campaign.

  • Building momentum and synergy: this can be achieved by linking action for hygiene, sanitation and water to support for the other Millennium Development Goals as part of a broad thrust to cut poverty reduction nationally and globally.

The potential can be simply summarized. Better hygiene is the goal. Creating demand is the starting point. Building accountable institutions to support communities is the means. And a better quality of life for over 2 billion people is the prize

Sir Richard Jolly is Chair of WSSCCthe Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council – and Research Associate and Honorary Professor of the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, United Kingdom.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | World Environment Day | Water is life | The water century | Taking it at the flood | Renewing the commitment | Waterless cities | Keeping pollution at bay | People | At a glance | Changing agenda | Nor any drop to drink | Bridging troubled waters | Books & products | Getting there | Sinking fast | Waste not | Water – the poor’s priority | Atomic power

Complementary articles in other issues:
Richard Jolly: Nutrition (Poverty Health and the Environment) 2001
Issue on Water, 1996
Issue on Freshwater, 1998

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Freshwater wetlands
Mangroves and estuaries