Global Handwashing Day is a once-a-year opportunity to make a big splash in support of handwashing with soap during the month of October annually. In South Africa, diarrhoea and respiratory infections are a major public health problem, and are amongst the top causes of death in children.
Thus, the provision of sanitation services is a key requirement for the establishment of sustainable, healthy communities, protection of the environment and to meet the human rights of all who live in South Africa. Sanitation infrastructure and practices must enhance the principles of health, dignity and the protection of the environment, ensuring an improved quality of life for all.
Changing the way sanitation services are provided and the nature of the facilities provided will have social and economic benefits aligned to the national development goals.
There are two important aspects to this. The first is in recognising the nature of water scarcity in South Africa and moving to waterless sanitation options for all South Africans. The second is in recognising the nature of human excreta (faeces and urine) as a resource to be utilised, particularly for fertiliser products, but also for the reclamation of important elements such as phosphorus which is a critical and globally limited resource, essential for crop production.
Adequate sanitation facilities are a necessary part of achieving the rights to dignity and to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution.
Therefore, Sustainable Development Goal target 6.2 calls for adequate and equitable sanitation for all. The target is tracked with the indicator of “safely managed sanitation services” – use of an improved type of sanitation facility that is not shared with other households and from which the excreta produced are either safely treated in situ, or transported and treated off-site.
According to World Health Organisation the benefits of improved sanitation extend well beyond reducing the risk of diarrhoea. These include, reducing the spread of intestinal worms, schistosomiasis and trachoma, which are neglected tropical diseases that cause suffering for millions. In addition, promoting dignity and boosting safety, particularly among women and girls.
Sanitation generally refers to the facilities and services for the safe disposal of human urine and faeces, including safe storage, transport, treatment, discharge and eventual reuse. It is without a doubt that safe sanitation systems promote human health by way of multiple barriers to prevent disease transmission and faecal contamination.
However, this includes important behavioral barriers like handwashing with soap. Sustainable sanitation emphasizes the containment of substances that are harmful to the environment and the reuse of nutrients.
It is for this reason that Department of Water and Sanitation reminds South Africans that keeping hands clean is one of the most important steps that can be taken to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. If all Global Handwashing Day celebrants advocate for handwashing with soap every day, not just on October, we can make significant progress in moving toward the goal of increasing hygiene programs, investment, and behavior.
Khulekani Ngcobo is a communicator at the Gauteng Department of Water and Sanitation, Gauteng Region.