I love a good toilet joke, but this actually isn’t one. World Toilet Day is an initiative of UN-Water, the United Nations agency that deals with sanitation. This year’s theme is leaving no one behind, which speaks to the 4.2 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to safe sanitation.
The numbers are astonishing. Open defecation is practiced by 673 million people, with India being a major area where this happens. Three billion don’t have access to proper handwashing facilities. An estimated 432,000 people die each year because of diarrhea caused by poor sanitation. At least 2 billion people access drinking water that has fecal contamination.
Refugees are particularly likely to not have access to safe facilities. Women’s safety may be compromised by needing to go out alone at night to use the (non-existent) toilet, and they risk being sexually harassed or assaulted. A lack of sanitary facilities at schools (which is the case in 1/3 of the world’s primary schools) can mean menstruating girls stay home from school. Children are at particularly high risk of diarrhea-related illnesses or death.
UNICEF points out that poor sanitation affects not only health, but also dignity, wellbeing, the environment, and socioeconomic development.
It’s so easy to take for granted what’s available to us in privileged parts of the world. Over the years as I’ve travelled I’ve grumbled about some iffy toilet facilities I came across, but at least there were facilities.
World Toilet Day was first established in 2001 by the World Toilet Organization, and it was adopted by the United Nations in 2013. This is the first year I’ve heard of it, and I had no idea how big the problem is.
Our brothers and sisters in poorer parts of the world deserve better than this. Everyone deserves a toilet and clean water, and if that’s not happening, it’s on all of us to address this social inequality. While speaking up about it may not change much, at least it’s a start.