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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2527

Sanitation the World's Silent Humanitarian Crisis

By Thalif Deen - UN Bureau Chief, Inter Press Service

Stockholm, 23 August, (IPS): The topic of toilets often makes people uncomfortable, says the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, and the subject of human wastes is rarely aired in public.

"A reluctance to talk about sanitation is part of the reason why an estimated 2.6 billion people worldwide, including 980 million children, remain without proper facilities," declares the New York-based children's agency.

Jose Antonio Ocampo, former U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, concurs with UNICEF because "sanitation is a problem that people are often too shy to discuss, and it is swept under the carpet."

The result: "a disastrous global impact on health and social development."

Poor sanitation, hygiene and unsafe water claim the lives of over 1.5 million children under the age of five every year, UNICEF estimates.

At any one time, half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from water-borne diseases, according to the Geneva-based World Health Organisation (WHO).

And in sub-Saharan Africa, a baby's chance of dying from diarrhoea is almost 520 times the chance of that in Europe or the United States.

Hopefully, all this may change, says the United Nations, when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon formally launches the "International Year of Sanitation 2008" in mid-November.

The world body, which has been trying to help developing nations drastically reduce extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 -- as part of its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -- is expected to give high priority to one of its most neglected: improved sanitation.

"The International Year of Sanitation (IYS) will help put the spotlight on this silent humanitarian crisis," says Ocampo.

The designation of 2008 as the year of sanitation was the result of a unanimous resolution adopted by the 192-member U.N. General Assembly in December 2006.

And one of its primary objective is to "dramatically increase both the number of people with access to proper sanitation and the number who practise good hygiene."

"Sanitation is a 'dirty word' in many cultures, and toilets are not discussed in 'polite company'. IYS aims to make sanitation a topic discussed without embarrassment," says a U.N. Sanitation Task Force.

Led by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the Task Force includes UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, U.N.-Habitat, the U.N. Environment Programme and the U.N. Development Programme.

At the international water conference in the Swedish capital last week, the Executive Director of the Stockholm International Water Institute Anders Berntell pointed out that sanitation, health, water and hygiene are critical topics.

"Improved sanitation and hygiene helps eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, promotes universal primary education, builds gender equality, reduces child mortality, improves maternal health and ensures environmental sustainability," he added.

Berntell said that sanitation has been described as the "orphan child" of the water sector -- neglected and hardly talked about.

But Sim Jae-Duck, a member of South Korea's national assembly, doesn't feel shy talking about public rest rooms and sanitation.

As chairman of the organising committee of the inaugural assembly of the World Toilet Association, he is hosting an international conference in the South Korean capital in mid-November.

The Seoul conference, which will focus on the problems of sanitation worldwide, will coincide with the launch of the IYS by the United Nations in New York.

Sim argues that nearly 60 percent of the water used by humans every day is consumed mostly in wasteful flush toilets.

"Proper toilet use and proper water use will enable us to conserve water and provide more acess to safe drinking water," he told IPS.

As mayor of Suwon, a city about 40 kilometres south of Seoul, Sim launched what he called "a toilet revolution" in South Korea, where he helped establish a chain of user-friendly and environment-friendly public toilets.

"A vision of tomorrow's toilets is on public display in Suwon", he said, pointing out that the brightly-coloured public restrooms in the Korean city play soft classical music activated by motion sensors placed on ceilings.

The toilets are also jazzed up with paintings, fresh flowers, solar-powered heating and enclosed gardens. At least one of the rest rooms gives the user a panoramic view of a river that runs across the city.

A future project in the works is to create IT-based (information technology) toilets which will provide a 24-hour news service.

"Since toilets are essential places in our daily lives, we want to create the concept of a cultural space in our toilets," Sim said.

On an average, he said, people spend more than three years of their lives in bathrooms.

At the city's huge stadium that hosted the 2002 World Cup soccer tournament do several public restrooms resemble giant soccer balls.

Sim said the Brazilians, the longtime world cup champs, who visited Suwon recently were so impressed they plan to replicate the toilets in a country that virtually worships the game.

- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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