Defining access to sanitation

Ambiguities in the definition of sanitation hamper the implementation of concrete actions in access to this essential service.

A poorly articulated concept that hinders progress on access to sanitation

Many international texts refer to sanitation, but the understanding of what it covers is the subject of confused debates. Does it refer to access to toilets or to the treatment of wastewater and run-off water?

According to the texts, improved sanitation, basic, satisfactory, adequate or total sanitation is referred to. This proliferation of terminology gives rise to various interpretations that do not facilitate the implementation of concrete actions in the field of access to sanitation.

A great deal of progress was made at the Rio+20 Summit where the more precise concept of wastewater emerged. Nevertheless, sanitation suffers from a lack of clear definition of its content, which affects the implementation of obligations related to this essential service.

While the international community has set a target on toilets, it has not set one on wastewater management, as is the case in Europe. Many governments in so-called developing countries make commitments on sanitation with only human waste in mind, which is essential, but do not take into account agricultural and industrial waste.

Today we are still far from what a complete sanitation service should cover, i.e. the evacuation, transport and treatment of dirty water. the degree of recycling of treated waste and the possible return of the non-recycled part to the natural environment.

Recommendations from (re)sources

* In the absence of an official definition of minimum sanitation obligations, the right to sanitation risks remaining a generous idea (human dignity) but far removed from actual concrete practice.

* States must qualify this right as they are doing for the right to access to drinking water, and guarantee funding.

* This means overcoming economic and institutional barriers, creating a momentum for change and putting an end to a situation that is considered secondary.