Toilet taboos

World Toilet Day on 19 November will highlight the fact that half the world's population doesn't have access to a toilet

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Whether you call it the khazi, the crapper or the bog, the toilet raises enough sniggers to have a form of humour named after it. But for the 2.6 billion people in the developing world who still don’t have one, access to a toilet is a serious global issue.

World Toilet Day on 19 November highlights the fact that nearly half of the world’s population are still forced to live without the dignity of even basic facilities, according to a recent report by the charity WaterAid. Even more distressing is the impact; diarrhoeal diseases kill 4,000 children every day. That’s more premature deaths in infants than caused by Aids, malaria and measles combined.

Avoidable deaths

“These are avoidable deaths; we have known their cause and the means to reduce them for generations,” said Professor Vivienne Nathanson of the British Medical Association in the report. “The millions of premature deaths in infants will continue until safe sanitation and water is readily available and excreta is removed from the living environment.”

Sanitation, however, is an icky subject that is comfortably overlooked. “Water gets a much higher profile,” said Yael Vellemen, policy analyst for WaterAid. “There are 884 million people who don’t have access to water compared with 2.6 billion who don’t have access to a toilet.

“But no one likes to talk about toilets, no-one likes to talk about poo.”

This, she argued, is one of several factors contributing to the low priority given to sanitation by politicians. “They like having their picture taken next to a school or a new hospital,” she said. “But they won’t have a picture taken next to a latrine.”

Add to this social taboos and the fact that those with less of a voice in developing societies  – women, the elderly, children, people with disabilities – are the worst affected by poor sanitation. The result is that sanitation and hygiene education remain at the bottom of political, health and community agendas.

Sanitation is key

In 2000, member states of the United Nations committed to achieving eight Millennium Development Goals aimed at halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015.

Now as World Toilet Day approaches in the tenth anniversary year since the signing of the Millennium Declaration, it’s estimated at current rates of progress the target to halve the proportion of people living without sanitation will not be met globally until 2049 – and in sub-Saharan Africa not until the 23rd century.

“Without addressing the issue of sanitation as a key element of human development, we’re not going to get very far with other efforts for poverty eradication and economic development,” warned Vellemen.

Photo: building a latrine slab in Malawi

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