Melting Pots

Of the 10 persons defecating in the open globally, six are Indians. By 2019, six will be from African countries, and none from India, as the country is inching towards meeting total sanitation targets. Though some African countries have shown marginal improvement, they are likely to miss the Sustainable Development Goal on sanitation in 2030. But that is just the beginning of the continent's problems. Lack of safe sanitation will lead to more water-borne diseases resulting in higher healthcare expenses and productivity loss. Poverty-stricken African nations can ill afford to ignore this basic developmental right. What will it take for Africa to overcome the various hurdles to achieve total, safe and improved sanitation?


Will africa meet its sanitation target?

More than 600 million Africans still lack access to safe sanitation. This will ultimately determine the well-being of the continent


Of the 1.2 billion inhabitants in Africa, more than 600 million lack access to safe sanitation. It is a serious problem as the lack of it affects the level of education, economic development and the overall health and well-being of people. The immediate casualties are children under five years. Besides, the discomfort associated with poor sanitation access and its impact on malnourishment is hard to imagine. Economically, lack of sanitation has a direct impact on the gross domestic product. The World Health Organization says millions of schooldays are lost due to poor sanitation in Africa and other parts of the developing and underdeveloped world.

Thus, there is an obligation for the world as well as for Africa to unite to tackle the bottlenecks in improved sanitation access. This is an urgent call for action, given that the continent has made the least progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on sanitation. For Africa to make any significant progress to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 6 on sanitation by 2030, countries must adopt a new approach. Goal 6 states that access to safe water and sanitation and sound management of freshwater ecosystems are essential to human health, environmental sustainability and economic prosperity.


African policymakers and political leadership have already established a strong platform for debating sanitation issues and arriving at proper solutions. In 2002, political leaders, government officials and non-state players met at AfricaSan, the first African conference on sanitation and hygiene, to debate on how to accelerate sanitation and hygiene access. After about six years, the second summit called AfricaSan 2, was hosted in Durban, South Africa, in February 2008, which was also the International Year of Sanitation. Ministers from 32 African countries in charge of sanitation and over 600 participants, including representatives from 42 African countries, attended the event. The main outcome was the AfricaSan eThekwini commitments.

Note: Map is for visual representation only

These were ministerial commitments that focused on improving the enabling environment for sanitation services and financing to accelerate progress. Among these was the one that aimed to “create separate budget lines for sanitation and hygiene in the countries and to commit at least 0.5 per cent of GDP”. These same commitments were later endorsed by the heads of state at a summit in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt in 2008. The outcome of the process also led to the inclusion of sanitation as target 10 under goal number 7 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): to reduce, by half, the number of people without access to basic sanitation and hygiene by 2015.

Since eThekwini, countries made significant improvements in the enabling environment for sanitation. This meant that many nations embarked upon development and improvement of the policy infrastructure and some carried out a process of institutional reengineering to position themselves for improving sanitation services delivery. At the end of the MDGs period, when the African Ministers’ Council on Water, the World Bank and other stakeholders did an assessment on performance, there was a sharp improvement in the enabling environment. However, there was little improvement in the access to sanitation and Africa missed the MDGs related to it. This was due to the lack of financing and capacity for sanitation service delivery, absence of sector coordination, want of a clear lead for the sector and the lack of focus on vulnerable groups.

Real challenges

As we have transitioned from the MDGs to the SDGs, the challenges have become more real, because the world targets open defecation and access to safely managed sanitation for all. Though the targets are ambitious, Africa has positioned itself to make progress by articulating the Ngor commitments on sanitation as a vehicle to help it achieve the SDGs. African governments made these commitments in 2015 during the AfricaSan 4 conference held in Dakar, Senegal. These cover key areas that the continent has to focus on to make progress. It has also developed a system to hold itself accountable to ensure it achieves the SDGs.

Africa is the only continent that has put in place such a system to deal with sanitation. The next step is for national governments to take the lead to operationalise these commitments. The process is already afoot. AfricaSan has provided the platform for collective action. The question of how far Africa will go in meeting the target depends on how well the countries and other players work together and how much they are ready to commit.

(The writer is the Sanitation Project Manager, Africa Ministers’ Council on Water, a Specialised Technical Committee for Water and Sanitation of the African Union)


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