Access to adequate, safely managed sanitation services is both a human right and a fundamental need, which is why along with access to clean water, “sanitation for all” has been identified by the United Nations as the sixth of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDG) that member nations should work toward attaining. Achieving universal access to sanitation worldwide is critical to reducing global rates of illnesses and deaths originating from infectious diseases, particularly among children, and in facilitating better menstrual health in people who menstruate. The positive impacts of sanitation on individual health also ripple outward into larger communities, driving greater productivity in healthcare, education, and even the economy.
Unfortunately, global sanitation targets have been distressingly off-track in recent years. A recent report from UNICEF states that, should the world continue at its current rate of progress, it would be impossible to achieve safely managed sanitation for all before the 22nd century. The Philippines is no exception, as an estimated 50.3 million Filipinos don’t currently have access to safely managed sanitation services, and around 24 million of these use only rudimentary toilets or none at all.
“Safely managed sanitation” is a term that describes the use of functional, improved toilet facilities that are not shared among multiple households. These facilities must also either enable the transport and treatment of excreta offsite or safely dispose of it onsite. While making such services widely available to all Filipinos is a significant investment, authorities agree that the environmental, health, and economic costs of inaction are too great to ignore.
Fortunately, experts also agree that the sanitation problem, while challenging, is also readily solvable. The government must combine its resources with private sector support and household investments to improve water infrastructure and leverage readily available technologies. Here are concrete, actionable solutions that the Philippines can explore to improve its progress on global sanitation goals:
Invest in water infrastructure nationwide
Consistent, sustainable access to safe, clean water is the backbone of any functional sanitation system. Households require water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, bathing, and a plethora of other daily activities. Communities also require facilities to safely treat and recycle wastewater in the interest of preserving public health and protecting local ecosystems. To meet these pressing needs and support the wider sanitation agenda, building and maintaining high quality water infrastructure are essential steps.
Water infrastructure refers to all natural and man-made constructions that move and treat water. This infrastructure is responsible for distributing clean drinking water to households, treating sewage, and collecting stormwater, among other important functions. In the Philippines, significant investments are needed not only to improve existing infrastructure in urban areas but also to deliver modern water services to underserved rural locations.
Water infrastructure development efforts by the government and its private sector partners like Aboitiz InfraCapital (AIC) are a major force for the improvement of sanitation in the Philippines. One salient example is the Lima Water Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of AIC that provides end-to-end water and wastewater services to a host of multinational companies located in Lima Technology Center, Malvar, Batangas. In line with Lima Technology Center’s continuing expansion efforts, Lima Water Corporation has also begun planning to install new reservoirs and deepwells, rehabilitate local water networks, and upgrade its sewage treatment facilities.
As of December 2022, AIC has also entered a partnership with Singapore-based multinational tech company Keppel Infrastructure in the interest of exploring a potential desalination plant project in Cebu Province. AIC and Keppel Infrastructure intend to leverage their technical resources and expertise to build a facility that can treat raw saltwater to produce safe and hygienic drinking water. The company has submitted an unsolicited proposal that pledges to supply the Metro Cebu Water District (MCWD) with 30 million liters of desalinated water daily, in the hope that this leading technology can help address some of Cebu’s water challenges.
Promote hygiene education
Improved sanitation technology and infrastructure must also be supported by widespread efforts to build hygiene awareness and educate the public about the importance of proper sanitation. Impoverished communities and those located in remote rural areas often lack access to toilets and handwashing and bathing facilities and may thus be unfamiliar with modern sanitation systems as a result. Open defecation and other poor sanitation practices are likely to be common in such communities due to this lack of access. Misconceptions, myths, and social stigmas around human waste may also be prevalent.
Hygiene education allows communities to better understand the relationships between sanitation, hygiene, individual and public health, and economic development. This enhanced understanding, in turn, not only motivates communities to demand better sanitation but may also encourage community members to participate in building and maintenance projects for sanitation and water facilities. Schools are especially important agents of positive change in this area, as children are often eager both to imbibe the lessons they are taught and also to share this knowledge with peers and family members.
In the Philippines, DepEd’s Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) in Schools (WinS) program has reported remarkable improvement in compliance with WASH indicators from participating schools over the last few years. According to DepEd policy, a school has to provide gender-segregated toilets, group handwashing facilities with soap, daily handwashing activities, sanitary pads, and safe drinking water to earn at least one out of three stars for WinS implementation. For many public schools in the country, providing these essential resources has come hand in hand with a more concerted effort to promote health education and hygiene awareness in the classroom.
Mobilizing the required investments and exploring potentially productive public-private partnerships is the best way for the Philippine government to deliver better sanitation to as many people as possible, in the shortest possible time. Combined with initiatives to promote positive behavior and cultural changes related to sanitation, these investments are key to bringing the Philippines more up to speed on global sanitation goals.
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