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Superficial overviews don't help the sanitation crisis

Guest bloggers - 16.11.12

James Robertson - is WASH Programme Officer at Plan UK

World Toilet Day, which is observed annually on 19 November, aims to raise awareness of and advocate for the staggering number of people around the world without access to basic sanitation. Governments, agencies, donors and NGOs – including Plan – are working to address this ‘silent crisis’. And what has become apparent is the need to ensure that the data being used to inform work is nuanced enough to provide the insight needed to tackle this issue effectively.

One important area often overlooked is of population growth. The Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Target 10 is to “halve the global population without access to basic sanitation by 2015‟. Confusion is caused here by the term “global population” as it is a movable goalpost.

Between 1990 and 2010 an estimated 1.8 billion people gained access to improved sanitation globally, but during this same period, the overall population grew by 1.6 billion. These gains and losses have not been distributed evenly between countries and in many nations gains in access to sanitation have been far outstripped by population growth.

Real progress towards improving sanitation must consider the rate of change in access to sanitation compared to the rate of change in population. Presenting this information in terms of absolute numbers of people could be one way of doing this and could actually make resource allocation more transparent (as absolute numbers of people require an absolute number of toilets). What’s more this could help predict not only the number of people who need to obtain toilets, but also the cost and financing strategies needed to pay for them.

Taking into account national population distribution can also be very helpful in monitoring improvements in basic sanitation. Historically national population densities have been provided by the UN in people per square kilometre. However, these do not reflect actual population distributions even closely. Egypt, for example, appears to have a very low overall population density. In reality much of the country has a zero population density as it is just empty desert, but the banks of the Nile are extremely crowded and hence sanitation becomes an extremely important concern.

A closer look at population distribution can give rise to a better understanding of the relative scale of the problem in different countries. For example in 2010, Bangladesh had an estimated 56 per cent access to improved sanitation compared to 13 per cent in Chad. To those  unaware of the national populations of Bangladesh and Chad, superficial logic might suggest that the sanitation problem is much greater in Chad. In reality these figures represent 66 million without toilets in Bangladesh and 9.8 million in Chad.

When we take population growth and population distribution into consideration, some very illuminating results emerge. The map below graphically illustrate that the majority of the world’s “global toiletless population” currently without access to basic sanitation are living in Asia while the sanitation situation is deteriorating fast in Africa.

The map below graphically illustrate that the majority of the world’s “global toiletless population” currently without access to basic sanitation are living in Asia while the sanitation situation is deteriorating fast in Africa.

 Data: Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN)/Columbia University, United Nations Food and Agriculture Programme (FAO), and Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT)
Publication Date: 200512

Superficial overviews of data relating to global sanitation rates have the advantage of being extremely easy to understand and have been crucial in gaining the attention of politicians. However, such oversimplification can lead to a neglect of population growth rate and population  distribution. Consideration of these factors is essential for NGOs, agencies, donors and governments trying to understand where sanitation “hotspots” are now and will be in future.

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