A staggering 2.4 billion, or one-third of the world’s population will continue to remain without improved sanitation in 2015, says a recent World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund report. This is a terrible violation of basic human dignity, because clean drinking water and basic sanitation are human rights that impinge on the exercise of other rights. To be sure, the proportion of the population without adequate provision decreased from 51 per cent in 1990 to around 33 per cent in 2011. East Asia has registered a 40 per cent increase in sanitation coverage. But recent global progress still falls short of the 2015 Millennium Development Goal target to halve the proportion from the 1990 baseline. The shortfall is in the region of eight per cent, which translates into half a billion people. This relative failure must also be viewed against the significance of the sanitation goal for other targets — to reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. A major cause of concern for public health still remains, with 15 per cent of the world’s population practising open defecation. Despite a declining trend from 24 per cent in 1990, the practice is rampant in over a quarter of the population in 27 countries. Water contamination is of particular concern for two reasons. First, while the MDG target relating to drinking water was achieved in 2012, some three-quarters of a billion people continue to rely on unprotected sources. Second, the MDG target on clean water is based on evaluations of the nature of construction of the source, in terms of contamination from the outside, rather than the actual quality of water people consume. Thus the treatment and disposal of faecal matter are major challenges.

Instructive for India is a study undertaken for the Water and Sanitation Program and the World Bank. It estimates the cost of inadequate sanitation for the country’s economy at $53.8 billion a year, a figure equivalent to 6.4 per cent of GDP. Among the so-called BRICS countries, India fares by far the worst, with some 627 million resorting to open defecation. The statistics elsewhere are strikingly small; 14 million in China and half that number in Brazil. The importance of proper sanitation to disaster preparedness can hardly be overstated, given the susceptibility of affected populations to waterborne diseases. Clearly, universal coverage must remain the core objective, at least at the level of basic offering of sanitation services and market-based alternatives as a supplement. This may prove a sustainable combination to rid the globe of the ruinous consequences of insanitary conditions.

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