By Melissa Diagana
3 Novermber, 2014
No, please, do NOT try to still your heart! We should all be truly, madly, and deeply excited by the importance of the toilet.
The humble toilet can be the focal point for discussions about safety, education, disease transmission, children’s health, cleanliness, potable water, cultural taboos, gender discrimination and economic development. Really.
The world has been celebrating World Toilet Day since 2001, because of the near superhuman efforts of one Jack Sim. This Singaporean came from humble roots, and after achieving great success wanted to give back to society. He decided to raise the standards of public toilets and started the Restroom Association of Singapore in 1998. A few years later he founded the World Toilet Organization, which established World Toilet Day. In 2013, Singapore’s very first United Nations resolution resulted in World Toilet Day becoming an official UN Day.
Why all the commotion? Because:
* 2.5 billion people have no access to a safe, functioning toilet,
* 440 million school days are lost per year due to water- and hygiene-related diseases,
* Nearly 2000 children die every day due to preventable diarrheal diseases, largely due to the fact that
* 1 billion people defecate in the open.
This is not an article to read during dinner.
Or perhaps it is. It will help you imagine what life is like for the billions of people who cannot make a stop at a safe and hygienic bathroom after a meal. This summer, every newspaper had a headline about the tragedy of the teenage girls in India who were forced to relieve themselves outside after nightfall, and never made it back home. Women and children can suffer from violence when they need to “go” outside. And everyone suffers from diseases spread through poop, such as dysentery, cholera, typhoid, schistosomiasis, trachoma and intestinal worms.
Open defecation also impacts children’s height. One reason may be that frequent diarrheal disease leads to chronic gut inflammation, which leads to the intestines becoming less efficient at absorbing nutrients, which leads to stunting. Another explanation may be the change in bacterial species in the intestines of malnourished children subject to regular diarrhea. The normal (helpful) bacteria can be so overwhelmed by the disease that they never recover, and the child never thrives.
Toilets can even keep kids in school. In many places, schools have no toilet, or no functioning toilet or no toilet with doors. So kids have no choice but to go in a field or gutter near school, spreading whatever infectious diseases they may have. If their peers get sick, they don’t come to school. Equally important, the lack of private school toilets is a major reason why so many girls tragically discontinue their education once menstruation starts.
What is needed in many situations is a simple, hygienic, cheap, “off the grid” (i.e., no connection to water, sewer, or electrical lines) affair. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet” challenge is to design such a toilet that can also promote sustainable and financially profitable local businesses. An MIT spin-off, Sanergy, is in the “sanitation value chain” business—they franchise their toilets to local entrepreneurs, and then process the waste into fertilizer. The World Toilet Organization has created SaniShop, a social enterprise that trains masons to build and sell toilets to their community.
Astoundingly, there are now more people on our beautiful planet who have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet. I do like my phone, but I could do without. My toilet, on the other hand.
A molecular biologist by training, Melissa Diagana enjoys studying the broader picture of natural history as much as its reductionist details, and has lived in Singapore for over seven years. She regularly writes about medical and environmental topics, has written chapters for several editions of the Living in Singapore book, and wrote (with Jyoti Angresh) a coffee table book about Fort Canning Park.