Water Advocates Speak Out for Improved Sanitation

The Ganges is proof that even the holiest of nature's creations can fall victim to the destructive powers of pollution.

The Ganges is proof that even the holiest of nature's creations can fall victim to the destructive powers of pollution.

Thousands of Hindu followers have their bodies committed to the Ganges each year in belief that the river's waters will carry their souls to eternal salvation. With nearly 89 million liters of raw sewage flowing into the Ganges each day, the health of the waterway is now worse than ever before. Existing facilities can often treat only 13 percent of this pollution. Those who drink from the river risk contracting waterborne diseases such as typhoid, polio, and jaundice.


In hopes of improving the river's fate, a coalition of Hindu spiritual leaders, environmental scientists, and water advocates is threatening the Indian government with large-scale protests if sanitation controls are not soon improved. They are calling for the government to increase pollution penalties and declare the Ganges River a national heritage site, which they say would ensure better environmental controls.

"The river is choking with filth. Effluents from all the cities and industries drain into the river unchecked, and it affects the lives of nearly 500 million people," said Baba Ramdev, a popular yoga teacher, the Indo-Asian News Service reported. "If the government refuses to concede our demands, then we will launch a mass movement from September 18."

The increased frustration over sanitation is not unique to India. Worldwide, a growing number of activists are demanding that their governments move beyond rhetoric on water policy this year, the United Nations-designated International Year of Sanitation.

The U.N. General Assembly created the International Year of Sanitation to raise awareness for the U.N. Millennium Development Goal that by 2015 the number of people who live without access to decent sanitation will be cut in half. But progress has so far fallen below expectations.

A report released last month by the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization said the percent of the global population that practices open defecation fell from 24 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2006. However, 2.5 billion people still lack access to improved sanitation, which would separate human waste from direct contact with water sources. "At current trends, the world will fall short of the millennium sanitation target by more than 700 million people," said Ann Veneman, UNICEF's executive director in a press release. In sub-Saharan Africa, the target may not be reached until 2076, according to the British advocacy group Water Aid.

The only venue where sanitation has been discussed among world leaders this year has been the annual Group of Eight (G8) meeting, the gathering of the world's most industrialized nations (plus Russia). Japan, host of the July meeting, vowed to make sanitation a "leading" issue. The final decision was to report on progress in 2009. World Water Week, held later this month, will also focus on sanitation.

Still, some progress has been made. The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council launched a Global Sanitation Fund in March to meet the millennium sanitation goal. Due to the contributions of several European governments, the fund now has more than $50 million. Also, the eThekwini Declaration [PDF], an aspiration that 0.5 percent of a country's GDP be spent on sanitation and hygiene, was signed by 32 African ministers in February.

To continue this progress, more advocacy groups are stepping up their calls for action. The End Water Poverty campaign, a coalition of more than 75 groups mostly from Africa and Asia, are calling for developing countries to commit 1 percent of their GDP for sanitation and water improvements.

In India, religious leaders are calling for the construction of additional sewage plants along the Ganges and other waterways. But increased funding alone may not solve the country's sanitation problems. The government has dedicated 51 billion rupees (US$1.2 billion) to clean the Ganges since 1982, mostly through the construction of sewage treatment plants. Yet frequent power outages minimize the facilities' effectiveness.

The government is beginning to explore treatment technologies that rely on gravity and naturally occurring bacteria, due to pressure from a Hindu priest. While still unproven on a large scale, the fact that these technologies use almost no power may lead to sanitation advances.

In many cases, however, simple technologies such as latrines are the only investments needed. "We don't need a silver bullet," said John Sauer, communications director for Water Advocates. "We have a lot of tools to tackle this, but we are just not applying them."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..