Toilets and Safe Water Could be Key to Ending Poverty

Simply installing toilets where needed throughout the world and ensuring safe water supplies would do more to end crippling poverty and improve world health than any other possible measure, according to an analysis by the United Nations University.

The analysis says better water and sanitation reduces poverty in three ways. •New service business opportunities are created for local entrepreneurs; •Significant savings are achieved in the public health sector; and •Individual productivity is greater in contributing to local and national economies.

UNU also calls on the world's research community to help fill major knowledge gaps that impede progress in addressing the twin global scourges of unsafe water and poor sanitation.

Information gaps include such seemingly obvious measures as common definitions and worldwide maps to identify communities most vulnerable to health-related problems as a result of poor access to sanitation and safe water. UNU also calls for creation of a "tool-box" to help policy-makers choose between available options in local circumstances.

"Water problems, caused largely by an appalling absence of adequate toilets in many places, contribute tremendously to some of the world's most punishing problems, foremost among them the inter-related afflictions of poor health and chronic poverty," says Zafar Adeel, director of the UN University's Canadian-based International Network on Water, Environment and Health.

"It is astonishing that, despite all the attention these issues have received over decades, the world has not even properly mapped water and sanitation problems nor agreed on such terms as 'safe,' or 'adequate,' or 'accessible' or 'affordable,' all of which are in daily use by officials and policy-makers."

In the analysis, prepared for global policy makers and released Oct. 20 at the start of a two-day UNU-hosted international meeting in Hamilton, Canada, experts offer a prescription for policy reform.

Based on input of experts from several countries convened in Canada late last year, the analysis urges governments to adopt a more coordinated, integrated, and interlinked approach to dealing with water and sanitation problems. Such efforts must be included in national economic development plans.

The UNU analysis identifies population growth, poverty, climate change, globalization and inappropriate policies on investment, urbanization, and intensification of agriculture as the five global trends most likely to exacerbate water supply and sanitation problems in years to come.

"As the International Year of Sanitation winds down, UNU invites and welcomes the help of all scientists who agree we can and must do more," says Professor Susan Elliott, a senior research fellow at UNU-INWEH and a professor at McMaster University.

"Poor health, especially chronic illness, can force a household below the poverty threshold," the analysis says.

The "toolbox" idea would involve "a virtual library and database of educational materials, technologies, governance, models, etc. would facilitate information exchange of both established and innovative tools."

"We need greater investment in the development of models to aid decision-making, reduce uncertainty, and augment costly monitoring programmes," says Corinne Wallace, Ph.D., a leading water-health researcher at UNU-INWEH. "Combining these efforts with a vulnerability map for water-associated diseases can form the basis for evidence-based policy development," she adds.

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