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Toilet Issues are Global Issues

November 11, 2013

Do you remember the movie, Slumdog Millionaire? Well if you’ve seen it, I’m sure you enjoyed it! I personally remember watching it several times over when it was released in 2008. The Danny Boyle blockbuster which is set in India, tells a very entertaining story of the rise to fame and fortune of a young lad from the slums of one of the world’s most populous nations. 

Apart from being a box-office success and winning multiple awards, the movie also sheds light on the sub-human conditions people live in shanties across the world. One part of the story I remember quite well is how, as hustlers, young Salim & Jamal try to make a living by renting out ‘toilet spaces’ on a marshy river bank. These ‘toilets’ are nothing but wooden boxes covered with a door, with nothing underneath except the faeces from the user above. 

What stands as striking about this scene from Slumdog Millionaire is that it represents the grim reality in a lot of the third world countries in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The value of public sanitation and hygiene, from the dimension of having clean and decent flush toilets, might not strike as much in a place like Canada, but for the remaining 1.1 billion people across the world who still defecates in the open, it is a serious matter.

As I stepped out of one of the several restrooms on campus a few days ago, I remembered one of the big warning signs I came across frequently on the coastline beaches in Cape Coast, Ghana (West Africa), where I spent the first few months of this year. Most were dissuading people from “defecating in the open,” with fines ranging from $20 – $25 dollars for defaulters. Open defecation, in places including the beach, is a raging problem in this African country and others in the region. Sometimes if you are not careful, you could step on fresh faeces. It’s that bad.

On July 24, 2013, after intense lobbying from Singapore-based NGO, World Toilet Organization (WTO), the United Nations officially declared November 19th as World Toilet Day. Huh? Yes, you read that right, a special day holding significance for why everyone across the world should have access to a restroom. Well, if you are still in doubt as to why this is an issue then you probably never knew that only 4.5 billion out of the world’s estimated 7 billion people have access to toilets. According to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) 2013 Report, approximately six out of the seven billion people on earth (86 percent) have access to a cell-phone, while a staggering 35.7 percent (2.5 billion) are said to be without access to good sanitation. This means more people have access to cell phones than they do to something as ‘trivial’ as a toilet! Come again? This ‘trivial’ lack of toilet facilities is causing 750,000 children to fall sick annually from diarrhea and other waterborne diseases. I think we might need to redefine what ‘trivial’ means.

The scourge is quite prevalent in countries like India, Singapore and Indonesia, where just having a place to go to heed the call of nature could be a challenge. Sensitization of the effects of open defecation and unsanitary human waste management as public health risks is extensively carried out by international NGOs like Water Aid & World Toilet Organization; still, more effort is required. The problem certainly isn’t a lack of technology, because there are evidences of toilets and sewage systems dating several centuries back, which have been discovered during excavations. As citizens of planet earth, we seem to know what to do. It boils down to recognizing the issue as a real problem and developing the will to solve it. 

In seeking progress on the matter, responsibility has also been passed to the governments of affected countries to step up on policy enactment to meet the sanitation needs of their people. The majority of these nations spend millions of dollars in epidemic control annually for refusing to be proactive with water and sanitation management. In providing sustainable solutions, some have begun instituting Public-Private Sector Partnerships (PPPs), which provide facilities like mobile toilets and paid public restrooms. 

Formal recognition of the World Toilet Day by the United Nations is a big and positive step forward. Interestingly, environmental sustainability constitutes one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Henceforth, I would like you to change the way you look at a toilet. The next time you’re using that restroom on campus, take a minute to reflect on how privileged you are. You also want to appreciate being able to do what you are doing in so much comfort, privacy and hygiene. I’ve seen some of these restrooms and by extreme, third-world standards, they can conveniently accommodate a couple of people as a residence! Furthermore, it also means you want to take better care of the facility and not treat it anyhow, just because it is a toilet. 

Remember, some people don’t even have one. 

Hopefully, we will one day become victorious in the battle against poor toilet facilities in the world, just like the theme song in Slumdog Millionaire says, “Jai Ho”!

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