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Investing in sanitation is investing in human dignity, says UN expert

GENEVA -- “Access to improved sanitation is a matter of human rights—it is a matter of human dignity,” said the UN Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations attached to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque.

“There is compelling evidence that sanitation brings the single greatest return on investment of any development intervention (roughly $9 for every $1 spent). Yet it remains the most neglected and most off-track of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets.”

Sanitation has been considered as the most important medical advance since 1840 - beating antibiotics, vaccines, and anaesthesia. “Access to sanitation is essential for people to live in dignity, yet 40% of the world still does not have basic sanitation” laments Ms. de Albuquerque.

“The scale of the crisis is enormous,” according to the Independent Expert. The United Nations reports that 2.5 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation.

“Access to sanitation goes hand in hand with human rights and human dignity” said the Expert. Contamination of food and water caused by sanitation problems undermines the right to food, and access to safe drinking water. Lack of access to toilets at school has been shown to lead to drop outs or non-enrolment of girls, impacting their right to education. Sanitation facilities are also considered a fundamental part of the right to adequate housing. More fundamentally, being forced to defecate in public is an affront to human dignity.

Poor sanitation has profound effects on the right to health, with an estimated 5,000 children dying from diarrhea every day. In Sub-Saharan Africa, treating diarrhea related diseases costs an estimated 12 percent of national health budgets. With widespread disease and illness, the productivity of workers’ is drastically reduced, and children are absent from school. For the most part, it is poorest and most marginalized groups who suffer from the worst sanitation conditions.

“Infant deaths, lost work days, and missed school are estimated to have an economic cost of around USD 38 billion per year”, highlights the Expert.

“For too long, sanitation has been neglected as a taboo topic. Investing in sanitation will not only lead to the enjoyment of human rights, but will also contribute to improved development outcomes and overall living standards,” said the Independent Expert.

“Although there has been increased attention to sanitation in 2008, the International Year of Sanitation, it is clear that the MDG target of halving the number of people without access to basic sanitation will not be met unless considerable efforts are made to continue the focus on sanitation.” In this regard, Ms. de Albuquerque, called upon Governments to prioritize sanitation and encouraged them to increase the percentage of their respective national budgets (including of Overseas Development Aid) to sanitation.

The Independent Expert also said that “universal sanitation is achievable and around the world successful sanitation programmes have been implemented by governments and civil society. They have however to be replicated in other villages, cities and countries so that “sanitation for all” becomes a reality”. In this context, the Expert commends the work that is being done by countless individuals, non-governmental organisations, governments and UN agencies that devote their best efforts, skills and energy to promoting sanitation for all.

November 19 is World Toilet Day, its establishment being an occasion to celebrate progress made in the area of sanitation, but also to raise awareness to the fact that over 2.5 billion people still do not have access to basic sanitation.


Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation at its ninth session in September 2008, and took up her functions on 1 November 2008.

For more information on the work and mandate of the Independent Expert, please visit: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/water/iexpert/index.htm