Singapore’s legacy in sanitation provides lessons for developing world, WaterAid research finds

Developing world cities can learn lessons from the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore when it comes to modernising slums with safe water and proper sanitation, new WaterAid analysis has found.

Strong political leadership, public infrastructure, planning and monitoring, as demonstrated in South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, can transform cities with universal or near-universal access to safe water and sewerage systems in just a few decades, contributing to dramatically improved public health and levels of wealth.

These findings are all the more significant as the United Nations works toward a new set of Sustainable Development Goals this year. WaterAid is campaigning for an ambitious goal on water and sanitation as well as inclusion of water and sanitation in targets for health, education and gender rights, as part of a campaign to deliver safe water and basic sanitation to everyone, everywhere by 2030.

In all four country case studies, fundamentals included the role of leaders in breaking down technocratic barriers to include sanitation in health, education and housing planning, and in forging a new national identity though campaigns like “Keep Singapore Clean”.  Sanitation was seen as a foundation for national development.

A whole-government approach and high-level responsibility for planning, implementation, monitoring and promotion can help overcome the great challenges posed by poverty.

The findings suggest there is no threshold for national income to begin work on universal access to sanitation. For instance, in the 1960s, South Korea’s per-capita GDP was lower than that of many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

By 1990, when UNICEF and the World Health Organization began their international water supply and sanitation monitoring programme, all four nations had achieved near-universal access and become wealthier societies with strong economies.

Tim Brewer, co-author of the report and WaterAid policy analyst on monitoring and accountability, said:

“East Asia’s successes in delivering sanitation and water challenge current approaches in other parts of the developing world. Providing access to these basic services requires them to be included in housing, education and community health at every stage of development. They are essential to workforce productivity and general well-being, and they cannot and should not be left as afterthoughts.

If we are to eradicate poverty in the next 15 years, as the United Nations finalises the new Sustainable Development Goals, access to safe water and basic sanitation must remain a priority for developing and donor nations. They are key to modernisation and the basic foundation for all development.”

The research is all the more significant as India’s campaign Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or the Clean India Mission, marks its first six months. The mission aims to eliminate open defecation and provide access to basic sanitation by 2 October 2019, the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi.

Neeraj Jain, Chief Executive, WaterAid India, said:

“The dire state of sanitation in India has gained wide attention with PM Narendra Modi’s much talked about Swachh Bharat Abhiyan but we need to act more holistically to ensure its success. The commitments need to go beyond just the construction of toilets to focus on other critical aspects like collective behavior change, hygiene and technology intervention. Education to change people’s attitudes towards sanitation is crucial if we are to realise the full health and economic benefits of sanitation.”

At least 748 million people in the world do not have access to clean drinking water and 2.5 billion do not have access to basic sanitation; of these, 1 billion still practise open defecation. It is estimated that nearly half of Sub-Saharan Africa’s hospital beds at any one time are taken up by people with preventable illnesses linked to a lack of safe water, basic sanitation and good hygiene.

Under the current UN Millennium Development Goals, which expire later this year, a goal to halve the proportion of people without sanitation is among the most off-track.

Toilet Facts

44 per cent of the total population in India still defecate in the open.

Open defecation causes chronic diarrhoea that leads to stunting.