Making water, sanitation, hygiene, everybody's business

Opinion Editorial article - Jakarta Post When it comes to development issues, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are aspects that have not received as much attention as they should be in Indonesia. This is an unfortunate fact, considering poor access to clean water and sanitation is one of the biggest causes of death of young children in the country.

As a WASH specialist for over 20 years – 17 years of which dedicated to WASH development projects in Indonesia – I firmly believe WASH is everybody’s business. It means the government, NGO, public and private sector have a role to play in this area.

The private sector can easily implement WASH programs through their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, regardless their core businesses or interest. Launching CSR initiatives on water, sanitation and hygiene may not be as “popular” as sending kids to school or planting thousands of trees, but WASH issues are highly relevant and strategic to all businesses. For one, the United Nations have declared access to water and sanitation basic human rights and one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Globally, more than 1.8 billion people are estimated to be lacking access to clean water and over 4 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation, putting them at risk of contracting diseases, according to World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the CEO-led organization of forward-thinking companies that galvanizes the global business community to create a sustainable future for business. In Indonesia, according to the WASH joint monitoring program conducted by UNICEF and WHO in 2015, 51 million people still practice open defecation and 72 percent of the population rely on poor quality traditional water sources for drinking.

This condition is the culprit behind the death of 50,000 Indonesian children every year because of diarrhea, a water borne disease inflicted by bad sanitation, according to UNICEF. It is not a condition exclusive to the rural areas – even in Jakarta the overall sanitation level remains poor.

The deaths and illnesses caused by water borne diseases are clearly preventable, if people have the knowledge and understanding of proper hygiene practices. These practices are as simple as proper handwashing with soap, which can already reduce the risk of diarrhea diseases by 42 to 47 percent.

Indonesia is one of the top five countries with poor hygiene and bad sanitation, costing the country around Rp 56 trillion or 2.3 percent of its GDP for medical expenses to treat water-borne diseases (UNICEF issue briefs, 2012). But, sadly, this issue is rarely discussed openly, at least not since I started working on WASH development projects in Indonesia 17 years ago.

Naturally, the lack of awareness leads to misperception among businesses that WASH is only related to water companies and infrastructure, thus not strategic enough for their business. On the contrary, WASH is about behavioral change effort first. Hygiene education in schools, community-based sanitation and household water treatment are some of the affordable and feasible programs that all businesses can do together with the government and NGOs.

In fact, building infrastructure such as water pipelines, public toilets and water drainage system is ineffective without changing and transforming the mindset and behavior of the beneficiaries. For instance, the communal latrines built in the past by the Indonesian government in villages and remote areas across the country are left unused for various reasons: either because of the lack of water supply, poor maintenance or distance problem. People continue to defecate in the open, as they don’t understand why they have to go through “so much hassle” to do something they can do easily in open areas around their workplace or houses.

What they don’t realize is that they put their children and other people at risk. Diarrhea rates among young children from families practicing open defecation in rivers or streams are 66 percent higher than those in households with private toilets and septic tanks. At the same time people practicing proper sanitation will also be affected by the unhygienic behavior of their neighbor.

We need to work on behavioral change element to ensure that proper knowledge, attitude and behavior are addressed in parallel with the development of infrastructures.

The private sector should also realize that there is a strong business case to involve in water and sanitation. Rapid urbanization and population growth increases competition for a limited supply of water. Consequently, a real or perceived mismanagement of this resource adds to the risk of conflict with local communities that can cause business loss. One notable example of this is the case of a consumer goods company in India that was closed by authorities after being accused of extracting too much groundwater.

Practicing proper WASH behavior also has the potential to reduce employee’s absenteeism due to illnesses. In addition, providing clean water can be fundamental to business growth. Unilever has stated that making water, sanitation and hygiene commonplace offers a market opportunity for them as well as a human development one.

It is a relief to learn that some companies in Indonesia have started their WASH-based CSR programs. IKEA and Indomaret allocate some of their profit to improve sanitation surrounding their business operations, from hygiene education, including the provision of handwashing stations in schools, to community sanitation improvement.

If more companies follow their leads and have increased awareness on WASH, their businesses will be more sustainable, and at the same time they will support the government’s objective to achieve universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2019.

Let this be a wakeup call for everyone: We are all affected. Despite our economic status, education background and even hygiene practices, our health is still at risk as the overall sanitation and hygiene condition in the country remains poor.

Let’s move for better WASH in Indonesia.

Claire Quillet is a former UNICEF WASH Specialist and currently running her own CSR consultancy firm, PT Towards Sustainable Businesses (TSB).