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Water & Sanitation

5 Reasons why Canada needs to lead on water and sanitation

Photo: Arne Hoel / World Bank

I have some big plans for 2030. I plan on living in a world where every person – no matter where they’re born – has a chance at leading a healthy life. This isn’t some idealistic fantasy; this is what can actually be achieved in the next fifteen years.

However, there are some concrete steps that need to be taken before this can become a reality: we need to achieve universal access to clean water and sanitation. Today, 2.5 billion people lack access to toilets and 1.1 billion people defecate in the open. These tragic figures make sanitation the most off-track Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target.

Because Canada has already shown remarkable leadership on global health issues, like Maternal and Newborn and Child Health (MNCH), it’s in a unique position to make sure water and sanitation is a priority for the world in the years to come.

Last Friday, MP Andrew Saxton from North Vancouver made a powerful statement in the House about the importance of addressing sanitation - an issue that is very rarely discussed in Parliament:

From gender equality to the world economy, water and sanitation affects a lot of other global issues - many of which are key to ending extreme poverty. MP Saxton mentions that we need to work toward better health and safety worldwide, and Canada is the perfect candidate to steer us in that direction. Here are 5 reasons why Canada needs to lead on water and sanitation:

1. Sanitation is critical to Canada’s existing dedication to empowering and saving moms and kids.

Prime Minister Harper has deemed saving the lives of mothers and children a “moral imperative” and a goal that can be achieved “with Canadian leadership and the help of partners in Canada and around the world.” Over the last five years alone, Canada has committed 6.35 billion dollars (through the Muskoka Initiative and Saving Every Woman Every Child: Within Arms Reach) to improving these outcomes.

In order to save and empower both moms and kids over the next fifteen years, sanitation-related issues need to be specifically addressed.

- Clean water is integral to creating the hygienic conditions necessary for the safety of moms and kids during pregnancy, childbirth and after birth.

- Sanitation is a contributing cause of stunting, an issue that prevents the healthy growth and development of 165 million children worldwide.

- Diarrheal diseases are a leading cause of death in the developing world, particularly for children under five.

These problems need to be emphasized within Canada’s existing aid framework as necessary steps in Canada’s efforts to improve the lives of moms and kids worldwide.

2. Improved access to water and proper sanitation can help close the gender gap.

Canada has made a number of commitments to improving the opportunities and resources available to women in the developing world: within that, sanitation needs more attention. This is important because water and sanitation issues disproportionately affect women and are keeping the gender gap from closing. Women around the world spend approximately 200 million hours a day securing water, and 1 in 10 school-age African girls do not attend school during menstruation (or drop out at puberty) due to lack of proper sanitation (which MP Saxton mentions at 0:30).

Universal access to safe, clean water and sanitation resources will improve health outcomes AND unleash a well of human capital - and ending poverty by 2030 will require the full participation of girls and women in all levels of society.

3. Open defecation is seriously harmful to the environment (and the global economy).

In the developing world, approximately 90% of sewage is dumped (untreated) into rivers, lakes, and oceans. This pollution affects water sources in the long term, disrupting ecosystems. The wildlife that inhabits these areas is not only harmed, but is in turn harmful to the people in surrounding communities. This environmental damage costs billions of dollars, affecting sustainability and the economy on a global scale (MP Saxton touches on the economic effects of poor sanitation at 0:44).

4. Alongside the provision of vaccinations, proper sanitation can help eradicate preventable diseases.

Canada has committed $500 million CAD towards supporting vaccinations through GAVI, The Vaccine Alliance. This pledge will help immunize millions of children against preventable diseases over the next five years. Vaccinations are a critical step towards ending diarrheal diseases, which kills approximately 550,000 children annually and is a leading cause of malnutrition. But vaccines cannot do it alone: improving sanitation systems is important in reducing infection rates. These are both critical parts of strengthening health systems to be resilient and more equitable overall.

5. Because we need to make sure Sustainable Development Goals are actually sustainable.

This year, the Millenium Development Goals are being replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals, which will set the framework for poverty alleviation over the next 15 years (MP Saxton stresses their importance at the end of his statement). Water and sanitation are at the core of sustainable development because it intersects with so many global issues – and failing to act will have widespread repercussions on the world’s health, environmental and economic systems.


Canada has demonstrated its commitment to global health in the past. Addressing water and sanitation is the key to saving lives in the present. If we are going to end extreme poverty in the next 15 years, the world needs more leaders, public figures, and global citizens to be advocates for the billions of people that are suffering needlessly because of inadequate water and sanitation resources.

MP Saxton started an important conversation in the Canadian government last week, and it’s our job, as global citizens, to send a tweet and keep the momentum going. If we keep talking about sanitation, our leaders will too.