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Learning from Victorian London to solve the global sanitation crisis

Bill Cash MP | WaterAid

5 min read Partner content

Sir William Cash MP, Chairman of the APPG on Sanitation and Water in the Third World, writes on the important history of the UK’s sewerage system and what it can teach us about creating a healthy, prosperous world.

The creation of our sewerage system is not often cited as one of the greatest moments in history. However, the decision to invest in removing dangerous sewage was a life-saver and played a major role in developing a healthier, more prosperous nation.

This Wednesday, WaterAid will mark the 150th anniversary of Britain’s first modern sewerage system, while also highlighting the ongoing global water and sanitation crisis, which represents a real and growing threat to global health and stability.

The international charity will recreate a Victorian London street right outside the Houses of Parliament.

MPs and Peers are invited to step back in time, experiencing the sights and unsavoury smells of the Great Stink of 1858, when the stench of the polluted Thames was so unbearable, it encouraged our predecessors to invest in sanitation.

Victorian characters including Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who designed the sewerage system, will be there to bring the scene to life. We must also remember John Snow, who during an outbreak of cholera in 1854 had the opportunity to further his theory that cholera could be spread via contaminated water.

My own family were personally caught up in the tragic consequences of cholera in 1849 when my great, great grandfather – who had been the Chairman of the National Temperance Society – died ironically and tragically of cholera at a meeting in which he consumed water when the others were drinking other alcoholic beverages. Such is life and death.

The opening of the first modern sewer in 1865 helped prevent cholera outbreaks, which had had a devastating impact across the country, and marked the start of Britain’s drive to protect public health through good sanitation.

Today, 650 million people across the world still lack access to clean water and 2.3 billion have nowhere safe to go to the toilet. Diarrhoea caused by dirty water and poor sanitation is the second biggest killer of under-fives worldwide, claiming the lives of 1,400 children every single day.

I founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sanitation and Water in the Third World in 2007, and indirectly this led to my promotion of my Private Members Bill, now the International Development (Gender Equality) Act, when I went to India and saw for myself the work being done by women in the slums of Delhi and Mumbai. By collecting millions of rupees from the slum dwellers of those cities on an incremental basis, they then used this money to create local water and sanitation systems in the slums to mitigate and prevent cholera, diarrhoea and dysentery in these areas.

My Private Members Bill was originally only No. 18 on the list for the Private Member’s Bill ballot and I am so glad it has been strongly supported by organisations such as the GREAT Initiative, WaterAid, Plan UK, the VSO and many others, and also particularly by Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for International Development.

Just because the problem is no longer under our noses, it is not something we can ignore. In fact, it is in all our interests that we invest in these basic necessities. According to the World Health Organization, for every £1 invested in sanitation there's a return of around £5 in increased productivity.

I am proud that this year, the UK became the only G8 country to invest 0.7% of our national income in international development. However, water, sanitation and hygiene currently receive just 2% of this budget, despite its role in maximising our impact on global health and development.

The Millennium Development Goal for sanitation has been missed, but this year we can rectify this as the world decides the framework for the international development priorities until 2030.

Safe water and improved sanitation and hygiene are vital to the success of other areas of development, such as gender equality – an area I have long been interested in. Indeed, last year, my Private Member’s Bill on international development and gender equality was enshrined into law. 

Clean water and improved sanitation helps keep children healthy, allowing them more of an opportunity to get a good education while safe, private toilets in schools means girls are less likely to drop out of school. This in turn means women are more able to achieve their potential, often get married later, have fewer children and are healthier as a result. Free from the burden of water collection, women are also more likely to be able to earn a living.

Both Singapore and South Korea reached universal access to sanitation very quickly after independence, despite starting with a lower GDP per person than many poor countries today. Political will was a critical factor in this progress, with Heads of Government setting and promoting the sanitation agenda. While the support of international aid was significant, they also invested substantial amounts of public money in the resources needed to get results and sustain them. Improved sanitation was key to the cities becoming economic drivers.

If we are to ensure our efforts to end global poverty are effective, we should learn from our own history. The sanitation crisis in particular needs to be urgently addressed in order to improve health and prosperity for all and must become a priority in our international development programmes.

To find out more about the history of our lifesaving sewerage system and what it can teach us about creating a healthy, prosperous world, join WaterAid and some of its dedicated supporters (including me) this Wednesday 15 July from 12:30 – 2:30pm at the Old Palace Yard, opposite St Stephen’s Gate.

Read more about Wednesday's event here.

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