Firstly, are you eating? Well, put your food away before you continue reading, because this article is mainly about the devastating consequences of human incapacity to manage our, um, daily bodily discharges.
I'm warning you first because many of us live in strongly faecophobic societies, where discussing fecal waste matters is considered somewhat ‘taboo'. If necessary, we either get by with delicate use of euphemisms such as ‘doing big business', ‘taking a crap', ‘answering the call of nature' and ‘to see a man about a dog (or horse)'; or we simply resort to making light of the issue through our respective brands of toilet humor.
Yet unfortunately, for nearly a quarter of humanity, human waste is no laughing matter. Here're some very disturbing statistics from the WTO (No, not that WTO; this is the World Toilet Organization) and various other sources:
- Around 2.6 billion or 4 in 10 people in the world still do not have access to proper sanitation and toilets.
- Children under the age of 5 account for almost 90% of all the deaths that occur from sanitation-related diarrhea; at least 5000 children die each day. Diarrhea is a greater killer than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and creates more victims than armed conflict.
- Further, millions of children are left physically stunted, mentally disabled and severely malnourished by excreta-related diseases and intestinal worm infection.
- Women, more than men, suffer the indignity of being forced to defecate in the open, at risk of assault and rape.
- Women, being the chief caretaker of the home children and other dependents, are most affected by a lack of sanitation, and by the indignity of living without sanitation.
- More than half of those who lack access to sanitation are from the poorest sections of society, living on less than $2 a day, and the majority live in the poorest regions of the world
A Sorely Neglected Problem
What makes the sanitation crisis so tough to tackle? Well, thanks to our instinctive refusal to even talk about it, it seems that the importance of sanitation has been overshadowed by other ‘easier' issues such as water shortages and child hunger, even if it is rightfully one of the equally critical items on the ‘development checklist'. It's a fruitless pursuit to provide the poor with clean drinking water and food to keep them alive, yet only to let them succumb to water-borne illnesses.
Furthermore, among governments there is widespread misunderstanding of sanitation issues. Lack of sanitation is often viewed as a symptom of poverty rather than as a barrier to development and poverty reduction, leading to a lack of urgency to mobilize funds towards this area.
And sadly, the demand for toilets is rather muted - people often do not appreciate the benefits of sanitation until they have access to it, especially when they struggle daily with the competing needs of water, food and shelter.
Although the UN has declared it a Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people living without access to sanitation, this goal remains the most off-track of all the MDG targets. Realizing how this topic doesn't get the prominence it deserves, the UN has designated this year as International Year of Sanitation, while a number of organizations have been working hard to push the sanitation agenda forward.
For example, the Centre of Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) has recently teamed up with UN-HABITAT, WaterAid International and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) to champion a human-rights approach for the sanitation problem in their recent publication, "Sanitation: A human rights imperative" (PDF).
Researchers have also attempted to put numbers to sanitation-caused economic losses in a recent World Bank research paper (PDF), estimating that Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam lose about 2% of their GDP, or a total of $9 billion, each year because of poor sanitation.
Doing Our Part
While others take the lead to fight for better sanitation for the needy, what can we do as individuals to contribute, apart from offering a prayer of thanks for being blessed with the luxury of toilet thrones and modern ‘flush-and-forget' sewage systems, which we've come to take for granted?
Remember, water and sanitation is intimately interwoven. The water-intensive systems taken for granted in developed countries will not be the solution for the many water-scarce poor regions in the world. At the very least, trying our best to use water more efficiently would certainly help, albeit indirectly. Or, we can take it further by conquering our reticence and spread the word, with some handy resources provided by the WTO. Finally, if you have some cash to spare, you can even sponsor a toilet.