Thursday 23 September 2010

Sanitation at the UN MDG Summit

This week has seen the 3-day UN MDG Summit in New York – and it even has a song ‘Eight Goals for Africa’. How did Sanitation fare? Well, there’s the Factsheet on Goal 7 (‘Ensure enironmental sustainability’, which includes the WatSan targets) – specially prepared for the UN MDG Summit. Then there’s the Background Note for Round Table 3 ‘Promoting sustainable development’ which starts off with the question “What are the most cost-effective national policies to increase the availability of safe drinking water on a sustainable basis and to improve sanitation?” − the answer given is:

A sustainable development approach incorporates environmental sustainability issues ‒ such as increased access to basic services, including safe drinking water and sanitation, addressing biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, slum rehabilitation, along with managing the natural resource base ‒ into the design and implementation of coherent and effective national development strategies.

Achieving universal access to clean drinking water and sanitation is critical for reducing poverty and malnutrition, and realizing the gender and health-related MDGs. While notable progress has been made in increasing access to improved water sources, explicit efforts are needed to monitor water safety, accessibility, affordability and reliability (or continuity). Greater emphasis on sanitation is particularly urgent as access to sanitation is still far from being achieved in many countries.

The most effective national policies are those that catalyze, facilitate and support effective local action. Local management and community initiatives play a key role in ensuring and sustaining the success of enhancing water supply and sanitation services to poor communities. National strategies can prioritize sanitation and water coverage by, for instance, setting norms and targets, and locating them within the framework of integrated water resource management. Successful policies have focused on:
• Building local community arrangements and capacity for developing, maintaining and expanding new systems to ensure sustainability of the benefits.
• Mobilizing local leadership and participation of community women in local water management institutions as well as training local people in maintenance and repair.
• Establishing management committees or groups that manage water systems beyond the completion of projects, instituting user fee arrangements, as appropriate, to ensure financing for management, maintenance and repair.

This seems to me to have too much of a rural focus. The three bullet points aren’t really that relevant for the large-scale infrastructure interventions needed in high-density low-income urban areas. And you can see that water gets more attention than sanitation.

What about Sanitation at the Summit?
It’s true that sanitation is mentioned in the ‘Outcome Document’ of the Summit Keeping the Promise: United to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, but it doesn’t figure that strongly. The new Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, launched at the Summit does better, with eleven references to sanitation, and there’s the ‘unofficial transcript’ “Everyone should have access to water and sanitation services that we in this room take for granted,” says Secretary-General on persistent, pressing challenge, not to mention the video of the ‘UN/MDG Maternal Sanitation Wrap’ at a ‘high level UN breakfast’. There was the ‘Partnership Event’ Addressing the Global Water and Sanitation Challenge: The Key to the MDGs on 22 September, but no info. on any outcomes (at least not yet). Almost all full of “platitudes [that] hog space that should be occupied by radical ideas” (to use a nice phrase in the Baobab blog of 20 September in The Economist).

There’s much more information on other websites − for example, read WaterAid’s newsroom item of 22 September ‘Heads of State and UN Secretary General urge action on sanitation and water’; see also the newsroom item of 8 September ‘Ten years on: hope stuck in the mire’ and the release of WaterAid’s new report Ignored: Biggest Child Killer – The World is Neglecting Sanitation.

What about Sanitation beyond the Summit?
I can foresee that the international sanitation agenda will be mainly dominated by Sanitation and Water for All (see here), Sustainable Sanitation – the 5-year Drive to 2015, and the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Sanitation (UNSGAB) (see here, for example), and this doesn’t fill me with much (if any) confidence that the MDG sanitation target will be met or that Sanitation for All will happen by, say, 2050. Of course, many other agencies (WaterAid, World Bank, ADB, WHO, UNICEF, Gates, SCF, Oxfam, …) will also be doing their bit (and some will be doing it better than others). However, what those without adequate sanitation need is better joined-up-thinking (and action, of course) – but where’s this going to come from, and how do we get it to those who need it?