World Water Day is an opportunity to draw attention to the fact that water poses a major challenge: the water we drink, but also the water that pollutes. Efforts to improve access to water for people must be continued: 36% of the world’s population still does not have access to toilets. In addition, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will follow on from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), will need to consider all the components of sanitation, including the environmental aspect.
Sanitation : where do we stand ?
The MDGs aimed to achieve access to an improved sanitation system for 75% of the world’s population by 2015. Significant progress has been made. However, the objective will not be reached: 2.5 billion human beings still do not benefit from an improved sanitation system. In Niger, for example, only 21% of the population has access to a sanitation system. The remaining 79% still defecate in the open, causing deadly diarrhoeal diseases, which mainly affect children. Geographical inequalities also remain: 70% of inhabitants in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to satisfactory sanitation facilities; 90% of those who defecate in the open live in rural areas.
In most developing countries, non-collective sanitation (latrines, septic tanks) is expected to continue in the coming years. Indeed, these technologies consume small amounts of water, have a low investment cost and fewer maintenance constraints. A collective network is only conceivable in certain areas in capital cities, which are highly urbanized and therefore dense, and where the volumes that need to be discharged and the ability to pay are sufficiently high.
In Africa alone, capital investment needs are estimated at over EUR 3bn a year (0.7% of Africa’s GDP), while maintenance requirements are estimated at over EUR 1bn a year (0.2% of Africa’s GDP). Countries such as Burkina Faso and Senegal may have made considerable progress, but most African countries have not mobilized the financial resources to meet these needs.
Reduce discharges of untreated water : an emergency
Worldwide, over 80% of wastewater is discharged untreated into rivers, lakes and coastal areas. The development of polluting industries around the world since the 1990s has exacerbated this pollution. Surface water and groundwater deteriorate and become unfit both for human consumption and for the maintenance of biodiversity (half of the natural wetland areas have already disappeared since 1900).
It is forecast that in 2025, 63% of the world’s population will suffer from water stress or water shortages. Climate change is expected to aggravate the phenomena of increased droughts in areas that are already vulnerable to water stress situations. Consequently, there is an urgent need to reduce discharges of untreated water in order to preserve water resources in receiving environments.
Make sanitation a priority for development actors
Economic impact assessments show that one euro invested in improving sanitation systems in developing countries can generate a return on investment of up to 9 euros, bearing in mind that the poor segments of the population are the first to benefit from these gains. Consequently, a situation without sanitation represents a huge loss: in Niger, this loss has been estimated at 2.4% of its GDP a year.
Making progress with sanitation requires the emergence of strong political determination. This must involve investment planning, tariff regulation (in order to ensure that financing for investments, operations and infrastructure amortization is sustainable), and structuring the entire sanitation sector. This structuring needs to have an effect on actors at all levels: public operators, sewage disposal companies, builders of on-site sanitation systems, and users.
International cooperation has an important role to play in this emergence in terms of technical and financial assistance. The adoption of the SDGs in 2015 is also an opportunity to advance the sector. Setting a target of increasing the wastewater treatment rate would be positive for the sector.