By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member
Sanitation was dubbed “one of the biggest scandals of all time” by the UN’s water chief this week as World Water Week got underway in Stockholm.
At a time when billions of people live without sustainable access to safe drinking water or suffer ill health due to poor sanitation, when food crises, bio-energy crops and climate change place ever-increasing demands on water resources, 2,500 water experts have gathered in the Swedish capital.
"Sanitation is one of the biggest scandals of all times. It's something that we have to put on our radar screen," insisted Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, who heads up the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation.
"7,500 people die every day due to this lack of sanitation," he said, pointing out that "the situation is the same as seven years ago." According to the United Nations 30 per cent of the planet's population will face water shortages by 2025.
In an attempt to inject some urgency into this situation during this International Year of Sanitation, the conference is focussing on how the lack of water supply impacts sanitation and health and has already heard calls for radical changes in behaviour and mentality when it comes to water usage.
At the ESRC STEPS Centre, our research on water and sanitation is seeking to promote changes in the ways in which water and sanitation are viewed and sustainable practical and policy solutions designed.
Why, as Prince Willem-Alexander pointed out in Stockholm, has there been no movement towards better sanitation for years, despite many interventions and international action? The STEPS Centre’s researchers believe there is a big disconnect between global rhetoric and the everyday experiences of poor and marginalised people. And until this disconnect is properly addressed, the problems of water and sanitation will remain unresolved.
Take the case of large dams, often considered to be the panacea to water scarcity but the source of great controversy around the world with the Narmada in India, Three Gorges in China and Epupa Falls in Namibia among the most high profile dam controversies.
Builders and planners have often ignored the high social and environmental costs of large dams, with benefits often going to large farmers and irrigators. The poor and marginalised are left to face displacement from river-valleys, impoverishment, destruction of ancestral homes and cultural attachments to land and river resources and unintended consequences, such as disease outbreaks.
The focus on water as an economic good can overshadow other, particularly cultural and symbolic, meanings and roles of water. The engineering and public health domination of sanitation can obscure local level priorities, needs and socio-cultural practices. For example, villagers in Merka, western India, prefer local sources of water (e.g. the tank and wells) to the ostensibly ‘improved’ government-supplied piped water.
Views that see water and sanitation problems in aggregate, technical terms, ignore the social, political and distributional issues that often underlie what may appear as water ‘scarcity’. These views often have little to do with local users’ rights and interests. Consequently, despite good intentions, many projects fail.
The UN undoubtedly has good intentions. It has set a target for halving the number of people without access to sanitation by 2015; on current trends it won't be reached until 2076.
Download STEPS Working Paper 6: "Liquid Dynamics: challenges for sustainability in water and sanitation" (pdf 566kb)