Why does a third of the world’s population have inadequate sanitation?
I hope I can shed some light on this. You see, my job literally sucks, which is why I call myself a water, sanitation (WASH) engineer.
When people are not completely freaked out by my choice of topics of discussion, such as stool control or menstrual hygiene, which is even more taboo, I am often asked why such a large percentage of the world’s population still lack. adequate hygiene.
We “experts” have already spent billions of dollars on this. So why haven’t we been able to give more people access to sanitation in developing countries?
Well, we tried: in the 1960s and 1970s, international aid concerned the provision of infrastructure. Here is a water treatment plant. Here is a toilet. Now go for your life.
But these often did not consider the adequacy and social, cultural, environmental and economic sustainability of the various WASH interventions.
If you are used to relieving yourself in nature, why do you listen to these “experts” telling you that it is “healthier” to lock yourself in a smelly little box, even if it was given to you?
If you are a teenager who has just started menstruating, is it helpful for you to have a toilet at school that does not have baskets or sinks and should be shared with teenage boys? Probably not.
What is “appropriate”?
That’s not to say that incredible things aren’t happening at the WASH today, thanks to programs run by NGOs, governments, universities, industry and, most importantly, the communities themselves.
But it’s not as simple as “giving” people a toilet, faucet or tampons. Many of the people I talk to assume that, as a WASH engineer, I (and my colleagues) must have all the answers. We do not.
In most developing communities, the most suitable technology is usually quite modest, and to be honest, in many cases local users have much better skills than engineers at transforming WASH technologies to suit their situations. Even the best skills taught in college won’t be particularly useful there.
So do I still have a job?
Yes. WASH professionals and researchers are now working on how to ensure that WASH facilities, services and behaviors are sustainable and relevant in local contexts.
Giving someone access to a toilet or water source at a certain time, which is how the United Nations currently measures the Millennium Development Goals for water and sanitation, does not it implies that this achieves “sustainable access”.
If users don’t appreciate the benefits, they won’t use the facilities. If users don’t have the capacity or resources to maintain and repair systems, they will fall into disuse.
The development literature is littered with examples. And even if a community gets “sustainable access” to WASH facilities and services, does it really want them? Has access to these improved your health, self-esteem, freedom, and ultimately, well-being?
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen would certainly argue that development cannot be achieved without them. His landmark book Development as Freedom argues that without sufficient skills and without achieving freedoms (including good health, stable finances, political freedom and access to opportunity) a person has not achieved the well-being necessary to be considered “developed”.