The purpose of World Toilet Day, celebrated on 19th November every year, is inspiring action to tackle the global sanitation crisis. With the theme 'Leaving No One Behind', World Toilet Day 2019 draws attention to those people being left behind without sanitation and the social, economic and environmental consequences of inaction.
In 2017, World Water Day focused on waste water in order to end the taboos around toilets and defecation, and 2018's theme was 'When nature calls'; this year's theme reinforces the campaign started on March 22nd with World Water Day. With the same theme, 'Leaving No One Behind', it seeks to give new momentum to Sustainable Development Goal 6, which promises sanitation for all by 2030.
Infographic by Pablo Cebrián González
SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation. What are the sanitation targets?
2030 has been set as the date to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals; a year that is closer than we think. SDG 6 seeks to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, everywhere, by that date.
Within this goal, the priorities are:
- Achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls, and those in vulnerable situations.
- Improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing the release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated waste water and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.
- Expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, waste water treatment, recycling and reuse technologies.
- Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.
According to the UN, water scarcity affects more than 40% of the world's population, an alarming number that is increasing due to warmer global temperatures caused by climate change. And although 2.1 billion people have gained access to improved water and sanitation conditions since 1990, the diminishing availability of quality drinking water is an important problem that affects all continents.
Video: United Nations
Why is access to clean water and sanitation important?
Access to water, sanitation and hygiene is a human right. However, billions of people continue to face huge difficulties to access basic services every day: 673 million people worldwide continue to practice open defecation (WHO/UNICEF 2019); in addition, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source that has been contaminated with faeces (WHO 2019), not to mention that more than 80% of the waste water resulting from human activity is discharged into water sources without any kind of treatment (UN, 2016).
These alarming numbers have a cost, first and foremost, in terms of human lives:
- Inadequate sanitation is estimated to cause 432,000 deaths every year from diarrhoea, and it is an important factor contributing to diseases such as intestinal parasites and trachoma (WHO, 2019).
- In countries where less than 70% of the population has access to drinking water, the number of deaths due to infectious disease in 2018 averaged 486 per 100,000 people, whereas in countries with improved drinking water services, the average was 88.3 deaths per 100,000 people.
- Children under the age of 5 living in countries affected by protracted conflict are, on average, almost 20 times more likely to die from diarrhoeal diseases caused by a lack of safe water, sanitation and hygiene than by direct violence (UNICEF, 2019).
- Approximately 1.5 billion people are infected with soil-transmitted helminth infections worldwide, something that could be completely prevented with sanitation (UN).
- 297,000 children under five are estimated to die each year from diarrhoea because of unsafe drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene (WHO, 2019).
The second cost has to do with the economy. According to a study by the World Bank Group, UNICEF and the WHO, expanding basic water and sanitation services to underserved populations would cost 28,400 million dollars every year from 2015 to 2030, or 0.10% of the total production of the 140 countries included in the study.
Without better infrastructure and more effective management, not only will millions of people continue to die every year, biological diversity and ecosystem resilience will continue to be lost, undermining the prosperity and efforts done to ensure a more sustainable future. For every dollar invested in basic sanitation in urban areas, the average payback is $2.5 in terms of medical costs saved and increased productivity; in rural areas, the average payback is $5 per dollar invested (Hutton, 2015).
Infographic by Pablo Cebrián González
Leaving No One Behind: toilets for all
'We have lived with black water (raw sewage) for more than 10,000 years; this human waste continues to be lethal for millions of people', says Santi Serrat in this article by the We Are Water Foundation. Indeed, throughout human history, black water (contaminated with faeces or urine) has been a problem for human beings, regardless of the evolution of sanitation systems to treat it. The advent of the cesspit in Babylon in 4000 BC, the evolution of the concept of hygiene during the Roman Empire with the separation of black water using sewers and the improvement of latrines, the Arab refinement with the separation of three types of water (storm water, grey water and raw sewage), the description of the first flushing toilet by John Harington in 1596 and the toilet with an S-trap to retain water permanently, patented by Alexander Cumming in 1775, are historical milestones of the evolution of sanitation and the fight for good practices and access for all.
According to the United Nations World Water Development Report 2019 , better water resource management and access to safe drinking water and sanitation for all are essential for eradicating poverty, building peaceful and prosperous societies, and ensuring that ‘no one is left behind’ on the road towards sustainable development. But there is a long way to go: only 40 out of 152 countries are taking appropriate steps to achieve 'almost universal' basic sanitation by 2030, and the rate of progress is even slower in rural communities and the poorest populations. In addition, as Utilities Middle East reported last September, only four countries have met UN Sustainable development Goal 6: ensuring access to drinking water and sanitation for all. Solving this global problem and achieving SDG 6 requires increasing the contributions by all actors, particularly by wealthy countries. According to the World Bank, 114 billion dollars would be required each year. In this regard, ONGAWA warns that, with the current rate of investment, the goal of universal access to sanitation will not be achieved until 2107.
Exporting the sanitation solutions used in wealthy countries to those with fewer resources does not seem a valuable option, because not only do they require sewerage systems which are too expensive to build, they also require a lot of water. This is why two of the major philanthropists in the world, Bill and Melinda Gates, launched from their foundation a contest to reinvent the toilet and adapt it to those in greatest need. The billionaire not only believes that the toilets of the future can save lives, but also that some companies are ready to do it, except for the costs. An issue that the Gates Foundation is trying to address with R&D investments to make solutions affordable for the poorest countries; Gates expects the toilet market will reach more than 6 billion dollars by 2030 .
Although a person usually spends an average of 3 years of his/her life sitting on a toilet, talking about toilets is not usually a favourite topic for discussion. 'Should we talk about poop?' 'No, thanks'. We have to break the taboo and do away with the limitations, because a toilet is not just a toilet. It is a life-saver, dignity-protector and opportunity-maker. We have to expand access to safe toilets, leaving no one behind. Because no matter who you are, no matter where you are, sanitation is your human right.