World Toilet Day

Colm Padraig Duffy tells us why World Toilet Day has become an important platform to demand action from governments, highlighting the issues of health and human dignity that are linked with poor sanitation.

World Toilet Day takes place on 19th November 2013. It is an international day of action which aims to break the taboo around toilets and draw attention to the global sanitation challenge. Over 2.5b people around the globe have no access to proper toilet facilities, which ultimately has a massive environmental and health impact.

Recent studies in India have highlighted the link between child malnutrition and sanitation. Despite India’s growing economic power, one in three malnourished children live in India. Around 46% of all children below the age of three are too small for their age and 47% are underweight.

Researchers have highlighted that poor sanitation and the resulting diseases are more to blame for malnourishment and child mortality than diet. More than half of India’s population (over 55%) do not use a toilet because it is either unaffordable or inaccessible. Malnourishment limits development and the capacity to learn. It is estimated that around 50% of child deaths can be attributed to malnutrition and over one thousand children in India die every day from diarrhoea as a direct result of consumption or exposure to fecal matter.

India alone accounts for 60% of the global population lacking in access to basic sanitation. In New Delhi, children must defecate directly into open sewers in the same place they eat, sleep, and bathe. Although local Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are working on the issues of sanitation in slum areas, the problem is huge. One NGO installed 10 toilets in one slum area for over five thousand people.

Dean Spears, a Princeton University Economist, described the sanitation and malnutrition situation in India as “a development emergency”. with U.N. Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, believing the situation is a global health crisis that people “don’t like to talk about.”

There are also key gender issues to consider here. Although the lack of access to toilets affects all of the poor in India, it disproportionately impacts females. In urban areas there are few public toilets, with the ones that are available charging a fee. However, the use of urinals for men is free, and men tend to urinate in public with ease compared to their female counterparts.

There is even less access to toilets in rural areas.  Women must defecate in the open and are often subjected to harassment for doing so. In an attempt to avoid such embarrassment, women will often try and avoid urination by withholding the consumption of liquids, leading to health problems such as heat stroke or urinary-tract infections.

As we approach World Toilet Day, the UN offers some staggering statistics. More people on the planet own a mobile phone than have access to clean toilet facilities. Despite what is clearly a global health crisis, development aid dedicated to improving sanitation and water actually fell from 8% to 5% between 1997 and 2008.