Dr. Hemantha Herath | (Pic by Chandana Wijesinghe)

Sanitation, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is ‘the provision of facilities and services for the safe disposal of human urine and feces.’ While this is a topic usually avoided and not spoken about, sanitation is of extreme significance. While squatting pans are still in use, commodes too can be found in rural areas. However, the biggest problem lies in the cleanliness and maintenance of toilets and the lack of running water and ways of disposing sanitary products.

Under the seventh Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), was the target to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe-drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. According to data collected from the WHO and Children’s Rights and Emergency Relief Organization, the United Nations (UN) presented that by 2015, improved facilities had increased to 95 percent, shared facilities had increased to four percent, unimproved facilities had reduced to one percent and there was no open defecation in the country.

Since the MDGs basic sanitation have been met, one may come to the conclusion that sanitary facilities in Sri Lanka are adequate.

The importance of sanitation isn’t a recent development. In fact, archeological evidence suggests that people who lived over 1,000 years ago recognized the importance of sanitation and disposing of waste properly. The Deputy Director of Environmental and Occupational Department, Health Ministry, Dr Hemantha Herath explained that even the Mahavamsa speaks about how the general environment was maintained in a systematic manner and how sanitation was linked with health.

Nineteenth century Europe directly linked waste with diseases, and even with a better understanding of how diseases spread, in the 20th century, people continue to recognize sanitation as an overall method to prevent the spread of diseases.

“There are many definitions for the term, but sanitation means all measures to prevent the occurrence of communicable diseases,” Herath said. He explained that sanitation includes good hygiene, water supply and the disposal of excreta.

“The government has continued to provide facilities to strengthen sanitation in Sri Lanka,” Herath said, explaining that today, many have access to safe water and toilet facilities.
Sanitation can be improved in various ways. Free public health services can include cheap water supply and subsidiaries on the construction of toilets while educating how to use toilet facilities, especially by females, is also important.

However, it’s not enough to merely provide sanitary facilities. “If we give people free toilets, they won’t know how to use them. Or they will misuse them as storerooms. Education is a catalyst,” Herath further said.

Sharing a similar view was Public Health Inspectors’ Union president MG Upul Rohana said a behavioral change is needed because most people don’t know how to use common toilets.

“Ten percent of the population doesn’t have access to sanitary facilities and this leads to diarrheal diseases,” Upul Rohana said. He added that there isn’t a strong program to examine if toilet facilities in the country are adequate while facilities in the private sector are well-maintained, the sanitary facilities in State institutes are nil.

“The basic needs of people aren’t met, and there is no water supply in most toilets. Added to this, they aren’t clean and there is no responsible person to ensure the quality of the toilets,” Upul Rohana further said.

While the males of the country continue to feel free to urinate in public, inadequate facilities pose a huge problem to females. Due to lack of adequate facilities, females often have to limit their travels. Further, they feel discomfort and embarrassment as society is such, that issues concerning sanitation are often not spoken about, and because they cannot have access to safe and adequate facilities, face a lot of stress and worry.

The issues faced by females due to inadequate sanitary facilities increase during menstruation as running water and places to dispose of sanitary napkins are lacking in Sri Lanka.

While saying that 90 percent of the population has adequate toilets, National Committee on Women Chairperson Swarna Sumanasekara said that one of the biggest issues faced by females on their periods is the unavailability of water.

“The sanitary facilities are not inadequate, but the basic facilities are at best average. There is also a need for the availability of water,” Sumanasekara said. She added that protective features are necessary for females and in low-income communities, females face an issue because they have to use shared toilets.

When assessing quality and quantity, Herath said the real requirements aren’t addressed. “We don’t address the need to dispose of sanitary napkins,” Herath said, adding that the authorities should focus more on such requirements and facilities.

Educational institutes
A student spends at least six hours a day in school. During this time, a student will have to use the toilet at least once. Thus sanitary facilities in schools are of utmost importance.
‘The 1000- Schools Program’ conducted by the Education Ministry has recognized the importance of sanitation and will be launching the first phase of the ‘Sanitation First’ program on October 1. According to Construction, Supplies, Services and Infrastructure Development Director of Education Ministry, Ashoka Senani Hewage, Sanitation First’ program will provide schools with well-designed toilets, high-quality fittings and garbage-disposal areas.

According to Dr. Herath, a conference was held in May for students, and this focused on ways to improve the facilities in schools. The basic standard in schools is to have a toilet for 100 students. “This isn’t enough, however, if the students only have a few minutes to use the toilet,” Herath said.

Speaking of the facilities in schools, Sumanasekara said, “The standards aren’t met and when menstruating, some students don’t use the toilets in schools.” She added that there should be separate facilities, clean toilets and water supply.

Looking at the situation at universities, according to Upul Rohana, the toilets in universities, for instance Colombo University, are not maintained. “The future of the country is in the hands of university students, and their mental health is very important. However, they can’t have good mental health because we can’t give them the basic sanitary facilities,” he said.

With a vision to, ‘advance Sri Lanka’s national development interests, by being the principal planner and developer of sustainable urban centers that raise the quality of life and productivity of life and productivity of those who live and work there,’ the Urban Development Authority (UDA), according to its website, is ‘empowered to function as the key urban planning and implementing agency of the country.’ However, when contacted by The Nation, officers of the UDA said sanitary facilities do not come under their purview.
Thus while the UDA washes their hands off the issues facing the people of the country, the Health Ministry and Education Ministry seem to be taking steps in the right way. While we have achieved the MDGs goals, it is important to be aware that toilet facilities, especially with regard to cleanliness and disposal of sanitary products, remain inadequate.

Sanitation First
Conducted by 1,000 Schools Project, Education Ministry, the Sanitary First program consists of three phases.

First phase
To be launched on October 1 a gift to schools on Children’s Day.

Thousand two hundred schools will be provided with modern washroom sets and both national and secondary schools will benefit.

Western Province- 118 schools
Central Province- 173 schools
Southern Province- 142 schools
Northern Province- 99 schools
Eastern Province- 122 schools
North Western Province- 141 schools
North Central Province- 87 schools
Uva Province- 99 schools
Sabaragamuwa Province- 123 schools

Washroom sets will include commodes, urinals, squatting pans, water, sinks, mirrors, courtyard areas and garbage pits. High quality fittings will be used.

There’ll be three designs; for males, females and primary sections.

One unit will cost two million rupees. Each school will be get units depending on the number of students and funds will be given to the School Development Committee, along with guidelines, rules and instructions.

Local Central Funds allocated to the Education Ministry will be used to construct toilets.
Schools will given two months to construct toilets. A supervision group has been appointed and consists of zonal engineers, technicians and supervisors.

Second and third phases will be launched in 2016 and 2018. At the end of the program, 10,119 schools will have new toilets. A total of 19,891 toilet units will be built.

Information provided by Ashoka Senani Hewage, Director of Construction, Supplies, Services and Infrastructure Development (Education Ministry)