In the context of the "Sanitation for all" initiative of the United Nations, and as part of a campaign to raise awareness about sustainable access to drinking water and basic sanitation services, every 19th of November we celebrate World Toilet Day to raise awareness about the global sanitation crisis, which with the current pandemic is even more noticeable. Under the theme "Sustainable sanitation and climate change", the UN, along the lines of the 2030 Agenda, tries to adopt measures to provide a response to both crises (the sanitation and the climate crises), with an eye on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, which seeks to "ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all" by 2030.
As part of the process to achieve SDG 6, the UN has established a series of indicators to measure the progress made, including access to drinking water, water quality, the proportion of the population that has access to sanitation services, or the proportion of safely treated wastewater. The truth is, even today, more than half of the world's population, some 4.2 billion people, have no toilets at home or do not have a proper sanitation system.
Having a toilet at home seems very simple, something within everyone's reach. Nothing could further from the truth
Why is it important to celebrate World Toilet Day?
The same as it occurs when you open the tap and see water coming out, having a toilet at home seems very simple, something within everyone's reach. Nothing could further from the truth. Celebrating a world day about such a mundane object for many as a toilet, is particularly necessary when we realise that all human beings share the need to use one, but not everybody has one. Because, regardless of where you are from, and where you are, you need a toilet to have proper hygiene conditions.
This day would not be as important if society could end with all the taboos related to the toilet and defecation, which was precisely the central theme of the celebration in 2017. Or if we, as the most intelligent species on this planet would listen to the call of nature (both meanings), something that was the theme of the 2018 World Toilet Day, because thousands of millions of people cannot answer the call of nature and relieve themselves because of lack of latrines. At the same time, nature has one of the answers to this global problem: nature-based sanitation solutions, which use ecosystems to treat human waste before it is returned to the environment.
It would not be necessary if, momentarily, all of us that only need to open a door to go to our gleaming toilet considered ourselves privileged, because fighting poverty, in every respect, is everyone's challenge, and we must not allow anyone to be left behind, achieving, as we strived for in 2019, access to fair and appropriate sanitation and hygiene services for all, ending open defecation, and paying special attention to the needs of women, girls and vulnerable people.
The other challenge of our time, before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, is climate change
Sustainable sanitation to fight climate change
The UN estimates that by 2050, up to 5.7 billion people could be living in areas where water is scarce at least one month per year, creating unprecedented competition for water resources. That is another challenge of our time, before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic: climate change. Every year, this phenomenon will become worse and its effects will be more severe; the connection between climate change and water is even stronger since the pandemic hit us: we should not forget that 40% of the world population, that is, 3 billion people, have no facilities to wash their hands with water and soap at home, a basic measure to prevent the spread of the virus.
The UN warns that floods, drought and sea level rise threaten sanitation systems, from toilets to septic tanks to treatment plants, which can be damaged and spread human waste to communities and food crops, causing lethal infectious diseases such as COVID-19, cholera and typhoid fever.
The role of sustainable sanitation, and this is the message the United Nations wants to get through, is that safe reuse of human waste can help save water, reduce and capture greenhouse gas emissions to produce energy, providing a reliable source of water and nutrients for agriculture. But that cannot happen without a toilet that effectively captures human waste in a safe, accessible and dignified setting.
According to the World Bank (2016), hygiene promotion is the most cost-effective health intervention
The finest example of human progress
Even though we have made important progress in terms of water and sanitation, some problems persist: billions of people have inadequate and vulnerable sanitation systems, or completely lack them. However, we must make good use of our abilities to improve how we manage human waste, something key to reduce the impact of poorly treated wastewater (worldwide, 80% of the wastewater generated by society is returned to the ecosystem untreated and not reused).
The toilet is, without a doubt, the finest example of human progress, and providing sanitation services is one of the most important public health advances. In fact, according to the World Bank (2016), hygiene promotion is the most cost-effective health intervention.
It is sometimes hard to find a link, but the first toilets appeared 4,000 years ago, and today 297,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor hygiene conditions or lack of drinking water. A long path for sanitation which does not seem to reach a closure at the global level, since the economic and social resources in each country are important factors to be taken into account in terms of achieving universal access to sanitation. The question is, are we ready to look out for the world beyond our borders? 4,000 years of toilet history and the progress made in sanitation should not be in vain. Now is the time to show how important this is: 2030 is just around the corner.