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Cleaning Up the World's Sanitation

THURSDAY March 20, 2008 Sanitation pays: For every dollar spent installing toilets in developing countries, there would be a $9 return in productivity, health and other benefits, according to a UN report released today.

The UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for sanitation seeks to halve by 2015 the number of people worldwide who don't have access to a toilet. The estimated cost of the program is $38 billion, less than one percent of annual global military spending. But that $38 billion investment would yield $347 billion worth of net benefits, according to the UN.

For example, meeting the MDG target for sanitation would increase productivity and add 3.2 billion annual working days worldwide. Universal access to toilets around the world would add more than four times as many working days, the report found.

Currently, about 2.6 billion people (more than one-third of Earth's population) lack access to adequate sanitation. Every day, each of those people spends a total of about 30 minutes waiting in line to use a public toilet or seeking a secluded location to relieve themselves. Over one month, that adds up to the equivalent of two working days, the UN said.

The lack of adequate sanitation also leads to lost workdays due to diarrheal disease - either because workers themselves are sick or because they have to stay home to care for a sick child or relative. In addition, many women don't go to work when they're menstruating because their workplaces have no toilets.

Globally, about 200 million tons of human waste and millions of tons of wastewater are discharged uncontained and untreated into waterways every year. This exposes people to disease-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites, which cause diarrheal disease, parasitic infections, worm infestations, and the eye disease trachoma.

Diarrheal disease (including dysentery and cholera) is a leading cause of death (1.8 million a year) and illness. About 5,000 children die of diarrheal disease each day and hundreds of millions of other children suffer reduced growth physical growth and impaired cognitive function due to intestinal worms.

Together, poor hygiene and lack of access to sanitation contribute to 88 percent of all deaths from diarrheal disease, according to the UN.

Meeting the MDG sanitation target would save $552 million a year worldwide in disease treatment costs. Meeting the target would also boost children's school attendance and provide a number of economic benefits for communities, such as infrastructure development.

In addition, health, safety and comfort standards for sanitation (along with aesthetic considerations) can also have a major influence on tourists' choice of destinations, the UN noted.

Currently, the areas with the least access to improved sanitation are West and Central Africa (36 percent coverage), South Asia (37 percent), and Eastern and Southern Africa (38 percent). Of the 2.6 billion people who don't have access to improved sanitation, two billion (77 percent) live in rural areas.

More information

The World Health Organization has more about sanitation and health.

Posted: March 2008


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