Sanitation refers to public health conditions related to clean drinking water and ‘treatment and disposal of human excreta and sewage.’ Preventing human contact with feces is part of sanitation, as is hand washing with soap. Sanitation systems aim to protect human health by providing a clean environment that will stop the transmission of disease, especially through the fecal–oral route. For example, diarrhea, a main cause of malnutrition and stunted growth in children, can be reduced through adequate sanitation. There are many other diseases which are easily transmitted in communities that have low levels of sanitation, such as ascariasis (a type of intestinal worm infection or helminthiasis), cholera, hepatitis, polio, schistosomiasis, and trachoma, to name just a few.
A range of sanitation technologies and approaches exists. Some examples are community-led total sanitation, container-based sanitation, ecological sanitation, emergency sanitation, environmental sanitation, onsite sanitation and sustainable sanitation. A sanitation system includes the capture, storage, transport, treatment and disposal or reuse of human excreta and wastewater. Reuse activities within the sanitation system may focus on the nutrients, water, energy or organic matter contained in excreta and wastewater. This is referred to as the “sanitation value chain” or “sanitation economy”. The people responsible for cleaning, maintaining, operating, or emptying a sanitation technology at any step of the sanitation chain are called “sanitation workers”.
Several sanitation “levels” are being used to compare sanitation service levels within countries or across countries. The sanitation ladder defined by the Joint Monitoring Programme in 2016 starts at open defecation and moves upwards using the terms “unimproved”, “limited”, “basic”, with the highest level being “safely managed”. This is particularly applicable to developing countries.
The Human Right to Water and Sanitation was recognized by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 2010. Sanitation is a global development priority and the subject of Sustainable Development Goal 6. The estimate in 2017 by JMP states that 4.5 billion people currently do not have safely managed sanitation. Lack of access to sanitation has an impact not only on public health but also on human dignity and personal safety.