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World Toilet Day is no laughing matter

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World Toilet DayTo raise awareness around World Toilet Day 2015, UN Water placed a giant inflatable toilet in front of the UN Secretariat in New York. Photo: John Aravosis

World Toilet Day is on 19 November. And while the topic might at first sound funny, its implications are deadly serious for billions of people around the world.

Today, 2.5 billion people don’t have access to adequate sanitation; and 1 billion still defecate in the open, a practice that has led to a significant number of diarrheal deaths among children under-five, among other health implications.

As UNDP Administrator Helen Clark recently pointed out, sanitation matters, especially for women and girls:

Women and girls who lack access to adequate sanitation experience higher rates of illness (Millennium Development Goals 4, 5, and 6), such as urinary tract infections.

The lack of safe, private toilets at schools is one of the main reasons why girls miss school days or drop out of school altogether. As the UN Secretary-General noted in his message for World Toilet Day 2013: when schools offer decent toilets, eleven percent more girls attend.   

When women have to travel from their homes or workplaces to use a public toilet, they are vulnerable to violence. When they have to relieve themselves in the open, they often wait to do this until after dark, which puts them at greater risk of harassment or assault.

In addition to health and well-being, there’s also an economic impact from poor sanitation, which the World Bank estimates at US$260 billion annually.

While great strides have been made in increasing global access to improved sanitation facilities (e.g., flush toilets, piped sewer systems, septic tanks) – rising from 49 percent in 1990, to 64 percent in 2012 – the improvements have been geographically uneven.

Over 90 percent of Europeans and North Americans have access to improved sanitation, while the number is below 50 percent in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And the rural-urban divide is even worse, with nine out of ten people who practice open defecation living in rural areas.

The ongoing problem, and impact, of inadequate sanitation is why goal six of the new global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is devoted to clean water and sanitation. SDG 6 calls for the availability, and sustainable management, of water and sanitation for all by 2030.  

Helen Clark explains further about UNDP’s work in this area:

Since 2008, UNDP’s innovative MDG GoAL-WaSH programme has assisted more than ten 10 countries across all regions to develop gender sensitive assessments and national strategies to ensure equitable access to water and sanitation.

A key component of UNDP’s work to improve governance in the water and sanitation sector is to promote women’s participation in decision-making. Experience shows that women’s involvement in sanitation programme design, management, and delivery improves sustainability and accountability.

Achieving SDG 6 will take political will and adequate financing. The good news is that the money needed is really quite small, in global terms. Worldwide funding for improved water and sanitation is around $11 billion annually. The cost of achieving SDG 6 is estimated at $27 billion per year. And while that’s over twice the current amount, it still only comes to .036% of global GDP.

Toilets aren’t a topic most of us are comfortable talking about. But to ensure adequate sanitation services for all, we first need to break the silence. That’s the objective of World Toilet Day, and it’s the reason UN Water placed a giant inflatable toilet bowl outside the UN headquarters in New York this week.

Passersby had a good laugh -- and they learned something too.

Gender equality Sustainable development Agenda 2030 Millennium Development Goals Blog post John Aravosis speakers corner