By Brian James Lu

Sanitation: Issues of water and toilets

I found it intriguing to read a report from the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) stating that only 84 percent of Filipino families have access to basic sanitation services. This means that 16 percent of families lack access to these services. According to the 2020 population census by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), there were 26.39 million households in the country. Sixteen percent of this total represents 4.22 million households. Multiplying this by the average household size of 4.1, we find that 17.31 million Filipinos lack access to sanitation services. This is a significant number, especially considering advancements in science, technology, and infrastructure.

The good news is that the Philippines is better positioned than some of its neighbors regarding access to basic sanitation services. According to the NEDA report, the Philippines is ahead of Indonesia (80.9 percent), Myanmar (79.6 percent), Laos (73.8 percent), and Thailand (48.4 percent). Singapore, however, has achieved 100 percent access to sanitation services.

In the first place, what is sanitation? According to the United Nations Water Decade Programme on Advocacy and Communication (UNW-DPAC), sanitation is defined as access to and use of facilities and services for excreta and wastewater that ensure privacy, dignity, and a clean and healthy living environment for all. This includes the collection, transport, treatment, and disposal of human excreta, domestic wastewater, and solid waste, as well as associated hygiene promotion.

The NEDA report noted that 97.6 percent of Filipino families have improved their drinking water sources. However, approximately 8.4 percent of households still rely on potentially unsafe water sources, such as unprotected wells, underdeveloped springs, rivers, ponds, lakes, rainwater, or water purchased from tanker trucks and peddlers. This is the reality in both urban and rural areas throughout the archipelago. Widespread water shortages, even in Metro Manila during the dry season, exacerbate the situation for residents across all social strata. Water rationing in middle-class and poor communities compromises health, as tanker trucks often do not follow hygienic practices in sourcing and distributing water.

In poorer communities, water distribution via plastic or rubber hoses is also problematic. Many of these hoses are connected with rubber bands and often submerged in canals, endangering residents' health.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. highlighted the water crisis in March 2023, stating that the Philippines faces a water crisis affecting 11 million families without access to clean water. During the 6th Water Philippines Conference and Exposition in Manila, he expressed surprise that water problems had not been a significant topic of discussion despite every urban community, and even some rural ones, facing a water crisis.

Compounding the sanitation problems in the country is the lack of toilets among Filipino households. Before the pandemic, in 2019, the Department of Health (DOH) aimed to construct 3.5 million toilets nationwide to achieve “zero open defecation” and combat polio. Two decades after declaring the Philippines polio-free, the resurgence of polio prompted this initiative. A significant portion of this target was in the National Capital Region (NCR).

The situation in the NCR and other megacities is unmistakable, given that a sizable portion of the population consists of settlers without land ownership. Many of these individuals live in informal settlements, or "squatters," and are more vulnerable in unsanitary areas.

The state of toilets in the Philippines reflects a complex narrative shaped by economic, social, and cultural factors. As the country develops, the journey towards improving sanitation and access to adequate toilet facilities involves significant progress, ongoing challenges, and innovative solutions.

Over the past decades, our country has made significant progress in improving sanitation infrastructure. Our government, along with various nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and international partners, has implemented numerous programs to increase access to clean and safe toilet facilities. According to a 2020 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the percentage of Filipinos with access to at least basic sanitation services rose from 67 percent in 2000 to approximately 75 percent in 2020. Urban areas have seen substantial improvements with modern toilet facilities installed in public places, schools, and households.

Despite this progress, challenges remain, especially in rural and underserved urban areas. About one in four Filipinos still lacks access to basic sanitation facilities. This problem is especially severe in the countryside, particularly in remote areas where open defecation and inadequate sanitation are common. The lack of clean toilets contributes to various health problems, including the spread of waterborne diseases like diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid fever.

Rapid urbanization, population growth, and limited resources exacerbate the situation. Informal settlements in cities often lack proper sanitation infrastructure, leading to poor hygiene conditions. Additionally, natural disasters such as typhoons and floods frequently damage existing facilities, further straining the already limited resources dedicated to sanitation.

Sanitation in the Philippines is not just about infrastructure; it's also about cultural and social attitudes. In some rural areas, traditional beliefs and practices influence the acceptance and use of toilets. Education and awareness campaigns are crucial for changing mindsets and promoting the importance of proper sanitation. Programs that engage communities and local leaders have shown positive results in encouraging the use of toilets and maintaining hygiene.

The Philippines' sanitation still requires significant improvement. Working together, the national and local governments, the private sector, and the international community can significantly enhance the country's sanitation and help achieve the goals of the Philippine Sustainable Sanitation Roadmap.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the foregoing article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Philippine News Agency (PNA) or any other office under the Presidential Communications Office.


About the Columnist

Image of Brian James Lu

BRIAN JAMES J. LU, MMgt, is an entrepreneur, business adviser, government consultant, and is deeply involve in civil society organizations. He advocates good governance, ethical business practices, and social responsibilities. He is the President of the National Economic Protectionism Association (NEPA) and Chairman of the Foundation for National Development (Fonad). His broad experiences in the private and public sectors give him a unique perspective to advance his advocacies.