|Modes of sanitation for the global population. Click to enlarge. Data: SIWI.|
The World Water Week in Stockholm concluded with 2,400 scientists, leaders from governments and civil society declaring that slow progress on sanitation will cause the world to badly fail the Millennium Development Goals while weak policy, poor management, increasing waste and exploding water demands are pushing the planet towards the tipping point of global water crisis.
This theme of the 2008 World Water Week was “Progress and prospects on water: for a clean and healthy world”. Eight workshops had two parallel directions. One set were sanitation-related and referred to safe handling of human excreta; the other related to water-carried pollutants and how to address water pollution abatement, wrote Professor Malin Falkenmark of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) in a summary of the week.
The scale of the sanitation issue is “unbelievable” wrote Falkenmark. Out of a world population of 6.7 billion, only 1.1 billion have access to conventional sewage. Three billion use other types of toilets from pit latrines to poor flush/cess pits, while the remaining 2.6 billion use simple open defecation.
Why is sanitation so fundamental? Beyond human dignity and defecation security, the main reason is that human health critically depends on safe handling of human excreta—the origin of pathogen-related diseases. The disease link makes sanitation and hygiene nothing less than an imperative for any society to function properly.—Prof. Falkenmark
Water pollution may originate from human excreta, from industry and agriculture. As water gets increasingly scarce, pollution abatement and waste water reuse strategies increase in importance. There is, wrote Falkenmark, a new attention to upstream/downstream linkages and of seeking the pollution source.
Allow me now some personal reflections: First of all, there is nothing really new with the sanitation or the water pollution issue. When reading the abstracts, I got a strong feeling of déjà vue—I read much of all this already in the 1970’s and 80’s. Both sanitation and water pollution abatement have been on the international agenda since the time of the UN Water Conference in Mar del Plata in 1977. Still after 30 years, the core problem still remains: lack of implementation of the promise of safe drinking water and sanitation to everyone. Still after 30 years, more than one third of the world population is referred to open defecation—this corresponds to the added population of India and China!
What are then the central barriers that have to be overcome? One challenge is probably the scale and the time it will therefore take. My sense of repetition maybe signifies that there is now a new generation out there who are reinventing the wheel, and have once again to convince skeptical politicians that transfer of diseases through infected water effectively hinders durable socio-economic development, but can be stopped by safe sanitation and hygiene. This enters a component of transgenerational transfer of knowledge.
This leaves us with a final question: Is there nothing new? There is indeed some quite encouraging information in the reports from the field. The first one is the use of schools as entry point by demonstration projects. This may in fact be a quite effective way of general awareness-raising by reaching their parents too. The second one is the nutrient reuse of human waste as agricultural fertilizer that is now taking form under the concept “productive sanitation”. After more than 10 years, the Stockholm Water Symposium call for nutrient recycling is indeed starting to come true. This represents an opportunity of global significance in a time of rising peak oil, of rising costs of fertilizers, and of dwindling phosphorus-mineral sources.—Prof. Falkenmark