Water Sanitation Health

International Year of Sanitation 2008

Statement from WHO's Director-General

Lack of sanitation kills. It degrades health - especially that of children - and undermines education. It affects whole communities but consistently those most severely affected are the poor and disadvantaged. 2.6 billion people lack sanitation worldwide. We are badly off track in meeting the MDG target. Even meeting the target would leave a truly huge population without one of the basic underpinnings of a healthy community. That is the classic approach. It is what many here would expect WHO to say. And it is true.

But I would like to present you with an alternative view: improving sanitation represents one of our best options to really accelerate health, social and even economic development. Sanitation is not the topic of the Millennium Development Goals or of the International Year of Sanitation because it is a problem, but because it is a solution.

Our work has shown that sanitation does improve health - simple achievable interventions reduce for example diarrhoeal disease by 391 million cases per year. Simple solutions exist that work in the poor urban and rural communities which are most affected. The economics add up: for every dollar, ruan or rupee invested, there are benefits that can, on average, be valued at nine times as much. Those benefits stack up to children, households and communities in the poor urban and rural communities that need them most.

Let us tinge this optimism with realism. Performance in extending sanitation has been poor at best, and turning it around will be the labour of more than a year. Even those advances made will be underlined by challenges such as climate change; even maintaining the existing stock of infrastructure is proving a real challenge. Sustainable solutions for dense urban slums remain elusive.

I am proud that WHO has recognized the importance of sanitation since its inception - the first ever World Health Assembly defined sanitation as a priority, and to this day we continue to recognize its importance.

We will continue to ensure that objective, balanced information is available to support policy-making and decision-taking, advocate investment in sanitation as a cost-effective health intervention, increase our impact by enhancing existing and new partnerships, and assist key partners at all levels by sharing the tools and guidelines we develop.

Lack of sanitation is an affront to human dignity. Let us seize the opportunity that the International Year of Sanitation offers - to transform the lives, livelihoods and health of so many.