More than three billion people in the world lack access to safe sanitation. Sanitation should be at the top of the political agenda, but unfortunately it is not a popular item among politicians. According to water experts working on Vision 21 this situation needs to change. A group of experts met in Wageningen in April to discuss how to make clean drinking water and sanitation available to all people by the year 2025
Protect your child from the guinea worm. This slogan has helped to virtually wipe out the guinea worm in India, and yet it was stumbled upon more or less by accident. Extension workers initially tried to convince villagers that it was unsafe to drink river water by letting them look at the worm larvae through a microscope. This had little effect. When asked Now you have seen the larvae will you drink the water? the answer was nearly always Of course: my grandfather always drank it. This went on until a shocked extension worker reacted with My goodness, would you give this to your children?, to which the reaction was negative. Then we realised that we should use this in the slogan for our campaign, tells Ashoke Chatterjee from the National Institute of Design in India. A good public awareness campaign and making an alternative water source available by introducing hand pumps led to the demise of the guinea worm in India, and it is also on its way out in Africa
Despite success stories like this, the last thirty years have not seen the hoped for achievement of safe drinking water and sanitation for all. More than a billion people lack clean water and more than three billion have no access to safe sanitation. These problems led a large group of experts to develop a vision of how to make clean water and good sanitation available to the entire world population by the year 2025, while taking into account the requirements of industry and agriculture. The plan, Vision 21 will be presented at the World Water Forum in April 2000
What makes Vision 21 special is its bottom-up approach. Experts started by working on the vision at village level in more than twenty countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and then going to the regional and national levels. Special studies are being made in regions where big problems are expected in the coming century, such as the Nile delta and Lake Aral. Then there are knowledge synthesising meetings where experts from various fields come together to set out their ideas. In April the Water for People Group met in Wageningen for one of these meetings. Discussions included the question of how to include households in the search for solutions to the water problem. The lack of drinking water and sanitation is not so much a technical or financial problem, but a social, political and managerial problem, says Hans van Damme, coordinator of the Water for People Group. We have to look for solutions at the household level, such as using waste water on fields or dry compost toilets. In an ideal situation households request services themselves. We have to get away from the donor approach where experts decide what is good for the recipients.
Many poorer sections of the population are not this far yet. In India millions of people defecate outdoors and they don't see it as a problem, says Chatterjee, head of the drafting team of Vision 21. It is relatively easy to persuade people of the necessity of clean drinking water, and much harder to convince them of the necessity of good sanitation. People feel they can manage without it, according to Chatterjee. The Water for People Group thinks that sanitation rather than drinking water should be placed at the top of the agenda. This requires a change in the mindset of politicians, as sanitation is also less popular among this group: Politicians like to be photographed next to a pump, not next to a latrine. L.K