Expert voices Vol 21, No. 11 - November 2017

World Toilet Day – no laughing matter

Most people don’t give much thought to what happens to their faeces once they flush their toilet. Others have their faces flush with shyness, when the subject of toilet pops up. But for billions of people who still lack access to sanitation services, toilets are often a matter of life and death. Ahead of this World Toilet Day, UN DESA Voice speaks to Kate Medlicott, Technical Officer at Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Health at the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO coordinates this year’s World Toilet Day campaign on behalf of UN-Water.

Next to the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty or World AIDS Day, the World Toilet Day might sound to some like a joke. Why is the UN so serious about it?
“It may sound like a joke, but it’s really not. 4.5 billion people still lack safe toilets or sanitation services that take away the waste and safely treat it. That allows poo to contaminate our communities, waterways and even our food, making people seriously ill and, in worst case, killing them. Babies and children are the ones who are most affected and more than 360,000 children under the age of five die each year due to diarrhoea – a common and preventable disease caused by unsafe water and sanitation. Right now, we are in the midst of a cholera and acute watery diarrhoea outbreak in Yemen and the Horn of Africa, with over 750,000 people affected to date. This is how important safe sanitation for all is.”

“Where the king goes alone,” “the little ladies’ room” or even “powder room” and “tea room” – the euphemisms we use for toilet show us just how uncomfortable we are discussing the subject. How is the UN approaching this touchy topic?
“Talking about a topic openly can often be a first step to breaking a taboo. In 2013, the former Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon urged us to break the taboos and prioritize sanitation as a global development issue. This is the line we’re following with the campaign for World Toilet Day. By talking about poo and pee, involving as many actors as possible and informing people, we believe we will promote a greater understanding and, hopefully, change.”

Target 6.2 of the Sustainable Development Goal 6 calls for universal access to equitable sanitation and hygiene and an end to open defecation. Are we on track to achieving it?
“In 90 countries, progress towards basic sanitation is too slow, meaning they are not on track to reach universal coverage by 2030. Of the 4.5 billion people who do not have safely managed sanitation, 2.3 billion still do not have basic sanitation services at home. Today, 600 million people share a toilet or latrine with other households, and 892 million people – mostly in rural areas – defecate in the open. Lack of sanitation also increases the risk of sexual violence against women, as they are exposed to attacks when they leave the house at night to defecate.  It also makes girls more inclined to drop out of school when they reach puberty.”

What is this year’s World Toiled Day theme?
“This year’s theme is wastewater, which links it to the theme of the 2017 World Water Day, celebrated in March. We chose this theme mostly because of the huge issue we have with pollution. Today, 80 per cent of our wastewater just flows back to nature, polluting the environment and wasting valuable nutrients and other recoverable materials. We wanted to highlight this for World Toilet Day by asking the question of where does our poo go? Not everyone knows where their poo goes once it drops into the toilet and whether it’s harming or helping our health and the environment. Our poo needs to take a four-step journey to be safely treated and reused and this is what we want to inform people about on World Toilet Day.”

For more information: World Toilet Day

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