Sanitation refers to public health conditions related to clean drinking water and adequate 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 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, 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".
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 partiularly 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.
The overall purposes of sanitation are to provide a healthy living environment for everyone, to protect the natural resources (such as surface water, groundwater, soil), and to provide safety, security and dignity for people when they defecate or urinate.
The Human Right to Water and Sanitation was recognized by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 2010. It has been recognized in international law through human rights treaties, declarations and other standards. It is derived from the human right to an adequate standard of living.
Effective sanitation systems provide barriers between excreta and humans in such a way as to break the disease transmission cycle (for example in the case of fecal-borne diseases). This aspect is visualised with the F-diagram where all major routes of fecal-oral disease transmission begin with the letter F: feces, fingers, flies, fields, fluids, food.
One of the main challenges is to provide sustainable sanitation, especially in developing countries. Maintaining and sustaining sanitation has aspects that are technological, institutional and social in nature. Sanitation infrastructure has to be adapted to several specific contexts including consumers' expectations and local resources available.
Sanitation technologies may involve centralized civil engineering structures like sewer systems, sewage treatment, surface runoff treatment and solid waste landfills. These structures are designed to treat wastewater and municipal solid waste. Sanitation technologies may also take the form of relatively simple onsite sanitation systems. This can in some cases consist of a simple pit latrine or other type of non-flush toilet for the excreta management part.
Providing sanitation to people requires attention to the entire system, not just focusing on technical aspects such as the toilet, fecal sludge management or the wastewater treatment plant. The "sanitation chain" involves the experience of the user, excreta and wastewater collection methods, transporting and treatment of waste, and reuse or disposal. All need to be thoroughly considered.