What do we mean by “sanitation”?

The first challenge for most countries is to define what sanitation really means. The second challenge is to decide what aspects are most important. Sanitation as a whole is a “big idea” covering everything from safe collection, and disposal of human excreta (faeces and urine); to the management of solid wastes (trash or rubbish.) Each community, region or country must understand the most sensible and cost-effective way of thinking about sanitation, both in the short and long term, then establish appropriate national plans and priorities, and last but not least  – implement!

It is important to understand that sanitation can act at different levels, protecting the household, the community and society. In the case of latrines it is easy to see that this sanitation system acts at a household level. However, poor design or inappropriate location may lead to migration of waste matter and contamination of local water supplies putting the community at risk. Further down affects of waterborne sewage contamination affect the entire society by ill health and environmental damage.

For countries with very low access to basic sanitation, the effective management of excreta at the household level may have the greatest health implications and benefits but may also be the biggest challenge. In other cases, for example, in a particularly congested urban community, some form of off-site (sewerage) sanitation may be the only viable choice. Yet, in other countries or communities a more complete solution might include a focus on protecting the environment.

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