Nature’s toilet is not natural

Tuesday, 18 November 2014 21:57 GMT

A woman selling toilets poses for a photo at the Oriental Market in Managua, Nicaragua, August 27, 2014. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

November 19th is World Toilet Day, a day to reflect on what a toilet means to you

How many have euphemistically referred to “answering the call of nature” before going in search of a clean, well lit toilet, with soap and water to be able to clean up afterwards?

The reality for 2.5 billion people is very different. And for 1 billion people, or one in every six, the reality is that nature is their only toilet – they practice what we refer to as open defecation. This reality is why 1.8 million people die unnecessarily of diarrhoea every year.

This reality is why girls and female teachers miss up to a week of school a month because of lack of proper toilet facilities for menstrual hygiene practices. This is the reality where privacy and dignity are sought and not found. This is the reality where women and girls increase potential exposure to violence and sexual assault.

This is their reality… what is yours? 

The bottom line is that universal access to toilets should be the reality for everyone. Wherever any of us go, we should be able to find a toilet to use. Inside our homes, in our schools, in our healthcare facilities, at the market or the bus stop.

These toilets need to be accessible to children, to those with physical infirmities, to the elderly, to the poorest of the poor. These toilets need to be accessible to everyone, all the time. 

November 19th is World Toilet Day, a day to reflect on what a toilet means to you. A day to reflect on what it means to be without a toilet. A day to reflect on what needs to be done if we are to truly make universal access to toilets a reality, to ensure dignity and equality for all. 

So what can we do to help make this right a reality for those who are not simply answering the call of nature, but answering it in nature’s toilet? First, we need to break down silos and co-ordinate responses.

There is a role for policy, practice and research in identifying the most appropriate approach to individual, family and community engagement, the most appropriate toilet, and, the most appropriate wastewater management system. There is a need to learn from what hasn’t worked in order to move towards opportunities to scale out and scale up what does.

Second, we need to use innovative and cross-sectoral funding mechanisms.

For example, Waste to Wealth is a wastewater management framework, supported by the Canadian government-funded Grand Challenges Canada, which utilizes anaerobic digestion technology not only to treat waste, but to create value-added energy and fertilizer byproducts that can be used to increase food productivity, light sanitation facilities and fuel food preparation.

The profits support operation and maintenance of the digester and the sanitation facilities and can be invested in social development projects, including scale out of sanitation facilities.

These economic benefits are above and beyond environmental improvements and improvements in human health. Finally, we need to recognize that universal access to sanitation is more than just money, more than just toilets. It is the private sector supply chains, technical capacity, regulation and oversight and other supporting elements. 

As we move towards post-2015 and a sustainable development agenda, we need to be changing conversations, we need to be changing mindsets and we will be able to start changing lives.   

Corinne Schuster-Wallace, United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health