Today, on 19 November 2014, we are celebrating the fourteenth World Toilet Day, an international day aiming to draw attention to the dire global sanitation problem, inspire action and celebrate the work taking place across the world.
Currently, 2.5 billion people do not have access to sanitation facilities that hygienically separate human excreta from human contact. Out of those 2.5 billion people, 1 billion people practice open defecation.
This problem has been framed in a number of different ways. Rates of diarrhoea, the second highest cause of death amongst children under five, are often discussed. Improved sanitation has been estimated to reduce cases of diarrhoea by more than 33 per cent. When including hand washing with soap this reduction rate is even larger. The United Nations Environmental Programme has claimed that the uncontrolled disposal of human waste is a major source of global water pollution. The Water and Sanitation Program runs the Economics of Sanitation Initiative which highlights the economic burden; it has shown that the lack of access to sanitation costs the world US$260 billion a year. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognised that clean drinking water and sanitation are a human right. Lack of access to sanitation interferes with a person’s right to life, health, education and dignity. The recent rape cases in India have highlighted the specific negative repercussions and dangers that lack of sanitation carries for women. Lack of privacy for defecation, urination and menstrual hygiene, and the shame of being seen, are major gender discriminations in South Asia and elsewhere. And lack of sanitation impacts on school attendance and thus education, especially for girls. It is now also becoming increasingly evident how lack of adequate sanitation impacts the nutrition and the physical and mental development of young children. This month my colleague Robert Chambers, along with Gregor von Medeazza from UNICEF, highlighted the links between inadequate sanitation and undernutrition. In an IDS Working Paper they show how open-defecation leads to stunting due to environmental enteropathy, other intestinal infections and parasites, all of which have been previously overlooked.
A better understanding of the multiple problems associated with the access and use of improved sanitation has led to the expansion of the sanitation and hygiene field. We now have sociologists, engineers, epidemiologists, behavioural change experts, doctors, religious leaders and even actor Matt Damon, putting in efforts to trying to solve this depressing issue.
This commitment by so many is excellent news. It brings the efforts of more people and different perspectives. However, we also need to make sure that we work together to try and establish a common language. Bringing together people who are traditionally trained separately is not an easy task and will take some time.
Expanding our awareness of the problem does not answer any of the difficult questions we are facing. It adds to the complexity of the issue and calls for conversations between different and sometimes conflicting points of view. However, it can make the answers easier to find. As more work emerges linking the sanitation crisis to a range of devastating problems affecting certain countries, this once hidden issue is brought up the priority list. The numerous reframing’s force policy makers and those in power to put time and effort into dealing with this tragedy. Additionally, it highlights to us, and by us I mean the WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) community, the need to synergise our work in order to integrate the many different sectors and actors involved. If we are able to leave behind the professional silos we are all comfortable in and co-create multidisciplinary action orientated work, new possibilities and creative solutions may emerge.
Jamie Myers is a Research Officer at the Institute of Development Studies working on Community-led Total Sanitation.