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   Friday, October 19, 2018
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Use soap, even if it pollutes water!
By Sudhirendar Sharma

The handwashing campaign pushed by the international development agencies conveniently ignores the fact that contamination by soap will put additional stress on limited availability of clean drinking water and will leave poor more vulnerable to diseases.


Can we wash hands with soap without contaminating water?

In recent years, soap brands on the supermarket shelves have multiplied by the dozen. From organic tinge to aqua fragrance and from creamy touch to soft wash, soaps have become much sought after products to stay clean. Added to its universal appeal is the embedded notion that handwashing with soap is the most effective and affordable health intervention known to man.

One would need to believe it to be true as the decade-old handwashing campaign has relentlessly argued that washing hands with soap reduces the incidence of diarrhoeal diseases by more than 40 per cent. Using such unsubstantiated claims are host of multinational personal care companies that have leveraged the presence of agencies like UNICEF to declare Oct 15 as the Global Handwashing Day.

Unlike last year when 15,115 people in Chennai created a Guinness World Record for ‘most people washing hands at one location’, over 200 million children and parents in 80 countries are expected to soap up for the third Global Handwashing Day this year. Initiated by the World Bank, the handwashing campaign has been sponsored by entrenched interests in Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive.

For each of these soap makers, handwashing as a cornerstone of public health offers a win-win situation to explore the hitherto unexplored rural market. For instance, under its Swasthya Chetna program the Hindustan Unilever has been working towards effecting handwashing behaviour change among the rural communities it touches. The company is investing US$ 5 million to capture the rural market through the message: ‘visibly clean is not really clean’.

Does soap make the hands ‘really clean’? The proponents of the handwashing campaign quote a 2005 research paper published in British medical journal Lancet to justify the effectiveness of soap as a cleansing agent. However, the results have been contested because not only was the research project sponsored by Procter & Gamble, one of the six authors have been an employee of the same company as well. The conflict of interest has been clearly evident.

Initiated by the World Bank, the handwashing campaign has been sponsored by corporations like Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive.

The impact of handwashing with soap on child mortality is speculative, to say the least. According to a statement from the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing, the coordinating secretariat for the campaign, 'since diarrhoea is the number one cause of child mortality in the world it is believed that reducing diarrhoea will have an impact on child mortality'. The scientific rigour in such correlations is seemingly lacking.

Despite such technical flaws, there is no let down in the campaign to transform handwashing from an abstract idea to an automatic behaviour. After all, for the sponsoring companies there is a soap market worth over US$ 10 billion on offer in the developing world. From Ghana to Peru and from Malawi to Indonesia, the world has been forced to believe that 'your hands are only truly clean if washed with soap'.

However, the fact that extensive use of soap leaves surface water sources polluted has been grossly ignored. Further, it does no good to 884 million across the world and over 128 million in India, who are in search of safe drinking water on a daily basis. The unquestionable faith in use of soap to stay clear of contagious diseases returns to haunt the poor through unsafe water supplies. It is a Catch-22 situation.

It is erroneous to believe that soap does not pollute water. Conversely, all soaps including the biodegradable ones, can contaminate fresh water sources. Using a biodegradable soap does not reduce its immediate environmental impact - it just means that the soap will biodegrade in time. Further, the presence of soap in water makes it unsafe for drinking, both for the presence of phosphorus and the unpalatable smell.

Promotion of soap as the 'only' option to stay 'clean' undermines indigenous knowledge, indigenous biodiversity and indigenous economies by destroying the indigenous systems of non-chemical, non-polluting natural products like neem, tamarind, shikakai etc. Across the country, many such herbal products and traditional techniques have helped communities stay clean till this day.

The uncontested handwashing campaign not only undervalues such traditional knowledge but uses the politics of knowledge to determine how research can be legitimised into action. By re-balancing 'know-what' (meaning technical knowledge) and ‘know-how’ (meaning the power to use knowledge), the scale has been tilted towards the interests of elites and away from the decisions that promote development as social transformation.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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Feedback /Comments on this article
Hobson's choice

What I liked about this article is that it is speaking common sense and highlighting the areas where we are going wrong. Fairly balanced one by providing an alternative to the problem. However, the solution is still not clear. For example, "non-polluting natural products like neem, tamarind, shikakai etc" are the ingredients to a non-polluting hygiene but how do we make use of it. Is it available as a product? Should you use them after defecation, during your shower, before and after your meals? The point is, I'm in a dilemma. Shall I ignore this well-intended but a good to read article or can it propel me and others into action? The above questions are already ringing in my head.

Posted By: Raj
Dated: Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Soaps have environmental impact

Soaps made by several MNCs are made up of harmful chemicals which are biologically harmful and non degradable. Soaps made of oil - or better known as Oil Cakes are bio logically more degradable. Usage of soaps and detergents is very harmful and the points raised in the article have opened our eyes. Soaps are causing irreversible damage to aquatic life also.

Posted By: Sorabh Bansal
Dated: Sunday, October 17, 2010

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An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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