Article The World We Want In partnership with the UNDP

Toilets save lives

More people have access to a mobile phone than a toilet. While technology and connectivity are growing at a rapid rate across developing countries, access to basic sanitation is failing to keep up. The 2015 Millennium Development Goal target of halving the amount of people without sanitation will currently be missed by 8% – or half a billion people.

This basic amenity, that most of us take for granted, can not only transform but save lives. When communities defecate in the open then water sources are contaminated and diseases quickly spread. 10% child deaths are caused by diarrhoea, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). That is more than from Aids, Malaria, and Measles combined and makes it the 2nd leading killer of children under 5.

In addition to the loss of life, lack of sanitation is also severely affecting children’s every day lives and their ability to gain an education and improve their situation. 272 million school days are lost each year due to diarrhoea alone and about 400 million children in the developing world have worms that prevent them from learning, according to WHO.

A lot of these problems could be prevented by simple access to a toilet, yet 1 in 3 people still don’t have this basic amenity.

“When we fail to provide equal access to improved water sources and sanitation we are failing the poorest and the most vulnerable children and their families,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. “If we hope to see children healthier and better educated, there must be more equitable and fairer access to improved water and sanitation.”

Protecting women

Toilets have many other benefits too, particularly for girls and women. Many girls end up missing up to a week of school a month when they start menstruating as there is nowhere to change or dispose of sanitary protection. This means they often fall behind in their work and more likely to drop out of education. 1 in 10 African girls do not attend school during menstruation, or drop out at puberty because of the lack of clean and private sanitation facilities in schools, according to research by UNICEF. The simple act of building a toilet can have huge implications for their future.

Toilets also help protect women and girls from violence. When they are out seeking somewhere to defecate after dark. they are vulnerable to sexual assault and also from attacks by wild animals.

Millennium Development Goals

Sanitation is the most neglected and off track Millennium Development Goal (MDG) and a lot still needs to be done. As well as the health implications, basic sanitation also has a big knock on effect to many other issues covered under the MDGs. Without it, it is difficult to address the issue of clean drinking water, wider health concerns and reducing the death rates for under 5s. It also plays a significant role in girls’ education, reducing poverty and addressing violence against women.

The progress that has been made in improved sanitation has mainly benefited the better off, according to Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. She says that this has just increased inequalities and there needs to be a more strategic approach.

“Too many people still lack a basic level of drinking water and sanitation. The challenge now is to take concrete steps to accelerate access to disadvantaged groups. An essential first step is to track better who, when and how people access improved sanitation and drinking water, so we can focus on those who don’t yet have access to these basic facilities,” she said.

Lack of water, sanitation and hygiene also has major financial implications. It costs Sub-Saharan African countries more in lost GDP than the entire continent gets in development aid, according to figures from the UNDP. While, the economic benefits of improved sanitation could be as much as $9 for every $1 invested, according to WHO. This is based on the fact that it increases productivity reduces healthcare costs and prevents illness, disability and early death.

Sanitation solutions

Putting an end to open defecation is on the agendas of most of the major NGOs and work is also being carried out by philanthropists, entrepreneurs and celebrities.

Campaigns such as World Toilet Day and the celebrity endorsed Toilet Strike, are drawing attention to the unsexy issue while a number of low-cost solutions are being created.

A one-use, fully bio-degradable toilet, called Peepoo, is already being used in Kibera slum and emergency situations. The makers are also using the invention to provide an income stream for local micro-entrepreneurs who are trained to sell and distribute this sanitation solution.

In 2011 The Bill Gates foundation launched the ‘Toilet Challenge’ to find innovative ways to tackle sanitation in developing countries.

“If we apply creative thinking to everyday challenges, such as dealing with human waste, we can fix some of the world’s toughest problems,” said Bill Gates.

Two of the ideas that received grants from the Foundation and are now being piloted are a solar-powered toilet that turns waste into fertiliser and one that generates electricity from urine to charge mobile phones. .

The importance of improving basic sanitation should not be underestimated and with the MDGs so off-track, there needs to a renewed effort to address this issue. During a recent web chat by the Guardian’s Global Health Innovation Hub, Eddy Perez from the World Bank said “we will fail to eliminate world poverty, because we will have failed to fix sanitation.”

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