Addressing the global sanitation crisis

NEW YORK, 7 May 2007 - The topic of toilets often makes people uncomfortable. But a reluctance to talk about sanitation is part of the reason why an estimated 2.6 billion people world wide remain without proper facilities. This means they lack protection against preventable diseases that claim the lives of thousands daily, primarily children, according to experts attending the First Preparatory Meeting on the International Year of Sanitation 2008 today. This is a theme year set by the UN General Assembly in December 2006 to help accelerate progress on sanitation.

"As far as I am concerned, this meeting will focus on one central question. What do we want to achieve by the end of 2008, and how do we achieve it?" said His Royal Highness, the Prince of Orange, Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, Chairperson for the United Nations Secretary General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB). "It is important that between now and November, when the International Year of Sanitation will be launched, we take the step from general objectives to measurable targets. Targets expressed in figures, percentages and money, and in concrete project plans and partnerships."

Over one billion people worldwide have gained access to improved sanitation in the past 14 years, but an estimated 2.6 billion people - including 980 million children - have lagged behind.

Participants at the one-day meeting included representatives of UN Member States, such as Colombia's Minister for Environment, Urban and Rural Development, H.E. Juan Lozano, UN Agencies, NGOs, citizen groups, academics and the private sector. The meeting was hosted by UNSGAB, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and UNICEF, with the goal of developing an action plan for the International Year of Sanitation and beyond to help accelerate progress and public awareness.

"Sanitation is a problem that people are often shy to discuss, and it is swept under the carpet with a disastrous global impact on health and social development," said José Antonio Ocampo, Under-Secretary-General for UNDESA. "The International Year of Sanitation will help put the spotlight on this silent humanitarian crisis."

The world continues to be off track to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015. Though global sanitation coverage increased from 49 per cent to 59 per cent between 1990 and 2004, progress must be accelerated if the world is to achieve the 2015 target.

"Children are especially vulnerable to diseases caused by the lack of proper sanitation," UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman said from Hong Kong. "Poor sanitation, hygiene and unsafe water claim the lives of an estimated over 1.5 million children under the age of five every year."

If current trends continue, there will be 2.4 billion people without basic sanitation in 2015, with children continuing to pay the price in lost lives, missed schooling, in disease, malnutrition and poverty.

It is estimated that improved sanitation facilities could reduce diarrhoea-related morbidity in young children by more than one-third. If hygiene promotion is added, such as teaching proper hand washing, it could be reduced by two thirds. It would also help accelerate economic and social development in countries where poor sanitation is a major cause of lost work and school days because of illness. Girls in particular - especially when they hit puberty - miss out on schooling because of the lack of clean and safe latrines.

Millions of people - especially the poor in developing countries - are forced to defecate in bags, buckets, fields or roadside ditches, causing serious health risks to them and others. Progress requires broad cooperation through public and private partnerships, community involvement and public awareness.

About the organizers:

The UN Secretary General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation is an independent body established in March 2004 in order to give advice to the UN Secretary General as well as to organize global action on water and sanitation issues. The 21 member Board is composed of a wide range of dignitaries, technical experts, and individuals with proven experience in providing inspiration, moving machinery of government, and working with the media, the private sector and civil society.

The Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat is a vital interface between global policies in the economic, social and environmental spheres and national action. The Department works in three main interlinked areas: (i) it compiles, generates and analyses a wide range of economic, social and environmental data and information on which Member States of the United Nations draw to review common problems and to take stock of policy options; (ii) it facilitates the negotiations of Member States in many intergovernmental bodies on joint courses of action to address ongoing or emerging global challenges; and (iii) it advises interested Governments on the ways and means of translating policy frameworks developed in United Nations conferences and summits into programmes at the country level and, through technical assistance, helps build national capacities.

UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world's largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.

For further information, please contact:

Malene Jensen, UNICEF Media NY, +1 212 303 -7970,