Considering the Future we want on World Water Day 2015 – Sanitation for All?

“Despite impressive gains made over the last decade, 748 million people do not have access to an improved source of drinking water and 2.5 billion do not use an improved sanitation facility. Investments in water and sanitation services result in substantial economic gains. The return on investment of attaining universal access to improved sanitation has been estimated at 5.5 to 1, whereas for universal access of improved drinking water sources the ration is estimated to be 2 to 1.” – UN Water:

UN Water estimates that: “500,000 children die every year from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation”.

Dwelling with no sanitation.

Dwelling with no sanitation.

It’s tempting for us in the Caribbean to think that our countries don’t contribute to this number but statistics from any of the regional health agencies would confirm otherwise. Throughout the Caribbean there are poor communities without basic sanitation. Two weeks ago, participants in a Governance and Sanitation Workshop, organized by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) in collaboration with the Global Environment Facility-funded Caribbean Regional Fund for Wastewater Management (GEF CReW) Project, the United Nations Environment Programme Caribbean Regional Coordinating Unit and the Caribbean Water and Sewerage Association (CAWASA), visited a squatters’ community in St. John’s, the capital of Antigua & Barbuda. There, at most, wastewater goes into septic tanks (which are often not properly maintained) then to surface drains which run down to the sea. Human waste is still sometimes bagged and tossed for disposal, and communal latrines, few and far between, are poorly maintained. This is not an uncommon situation in the Wider Caribbean Region.

This says a lot about the real gap that exists between “Sanitation for All” and the reality. While the majority of us in the Caribbean may have flush-toilets which discharge to sewer systems or to on-site systems such as septic tanks that provide some level of treatment, there are still many among us who struggle with this daily challenge.

For those who lack even basic sanitation, the suffering caused by this is not only about the hardship and indignity of having to “make-do”, it is also the sickness that results when coastal waters become polluted by untreated waste. At worst, stagnant, oxygen-starved, polluted waters lap our shores killing marine life and making us sick. We often don’t even make the linkages … the ear, eye and skin infections suffered by swimmers and bathers, and the dwindling numbers of fish being netted by fisher-folk are caused by the domestic and industrial contaminants we put into waterways and the sea.

So what can we do?

The issues of sanitation (i.e. the provision of clean drinking water and adequate sewage disposal) and wastewater treatment (i.e. the process of removing contaminants from wastewater) are intertwined. Both affect living conditions and human health and are considered critical issues at every

The Protocol on the Control of Land-based Sources of Marine Pollution, referred to as the LBS Protocol, offers Caribbean countries some help. In the Wider Caribbean Region, over 80% of domestic wastewater enters the Caribbean Sea untreated making sewage the number one point source of marine pollution in the region. In 1999, governments of the Wider Caribbean Region signalled their commitment to address land-based sources of marine pollution when they agreed to the LBS Protocol. This Protocol forms part of the only legally binding regional agreement for the protection and development of the Caribbean Sea – the Cartagena Convention and eleven countries in the region have signed this agreement to date.

Signing onto the LBS Protocol commits governments to make major improvements in wastewater management by introducing innovative and cost effective treatment technologies, improving policy, regulatory and institutional frameworks, and expanding access to affordable financing.
The GEF CReW Project, which began in 2011 and is being co-implemented by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is one of the initiatives that is meant to help. It aims to: provide sustainable financing for the wastewater sector; support policy and legislative reforms; and foster regional dialogue and knowledge exchange. It does this through three interlinked components: investment and sustainable financing; reforms for wastewater management; and communications outreach and training.

GEF CReW recently published a Regional Wastewater Management Policy Template and Toolkit which is specifically designed to assist wastewater managers, chief technocrats or senior policy officers to improve capacity in developing and implementing wastewater management policies to improve the management of the sector. Recognizing the need to raise public awareness of waste management and related issues, it has produced a range of information products including documentary videos, fact and briefing sheets, newsletters and posters. These are available on the project website:

March 22nd is World Water Day and the theme for 2015 is ‘Water and Sustainable Development’. It reminds us about how water links to all areas we need to consider such as health, nature, urbanization, industry, energy, food and equality, if we are to create the future we want. It also reminds us that improving sanitation and wastewater treatment as well as exploring new opportunities for seeing wastewater as a resource must become part of the development agenda.

Access to clean water and to sanitation as well as good management of the wastewater we generate are all essential aspects of sustainable development. To continue to neglect them, even as we find resources to do other “more important” things, puts our people at a disadvantage and steadily diminishes the value of the natural environment, upon which our future and livelihoods depend.

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