The World’s Toilet Problem

Nov 8, 2019 | 360, Asia, Bangladesh, GOV, India

A toilet in the Balukhali camp, ‘Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh ©UN Women

Having access to water and toilets – is actually a human right.

November 19, 2019 is World Toilet Day, and on this day, we pause and contemplate the fact that clean water and sanitation remains a pipe dream for billions of people around the world.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6  offers a glimmer of hope to impoverished populations that still suffer to this day from lack of access to sanitary toilets. It is estimated that 785 million people worldwide have yet to have any access to basic water services. No access to drinking water usually means there is no running water at home, and open defecation is common.

To date, there are still 701 million globally that practice open defecation. The number of people who don’t have safely managed sanitation? A mind-bending 4.2 billion people. This is a scandal, no less, to the modernity that our current epoch attempts to paint.

Ultimately (and sadly), it is often up to NGOs to take the first steps that will provide the initial relief to underserved, or worse, forgotten populations and communities. The United Nations World Water Development Report 2019 succinctly points out that it is often the rural communities that suffer from having no running water and toilets. Water infrastructure, which should come first, is often sparse in rural areas.

Worshippers Take ‘Holy Dip’ Ganges River at Varanasi, India ©Neil Palmer

The Refugee Crisis

The current mass displacement and migrations that have resulted in the creation of massive camps for refugees have also resulted in complications. The influx of large numbers of peoples creates a strain on present water resources and related services, which also results in the reduction or downgrading of sanitation and hygiene.

Refugees or IDPs are faced with terrifying, unhygienic camps with temporary or communal toilet facilities. The scale of the problem faced by refugees can be quantified by the UN Refugee Agency’s most recent, completed project, which is the world’s biggest ever waste facility. The human waste facility is located in Katupalong, Bangladesh, and is capable of processing up to 40 cubic meters of raw sewage per day. Almost a million Rohingyas now reside in complex settlements in what is called the “Cox’s Bazar” area. It is the largest refugee settlement in present history, and the crisis of clean water and properly managed sanitation began in August 2017, when the Rohingya crisis emerged.

At Cox’s Bazar, refugees line up their containers in Que in advance ©EU Civil Protection Humanitarian Aid

Leaving No One Behind? 

The theme for this year’s World Toilet Day is “leaving no one behind.” While optimistic, the theme is a grim reminder of what was left out of the purported progress brought about by capitalism itself.

It is challenging, to say the least, to imagine modernity, progress, and dignity in a world where water remains a scarce resource to so many people. To paraphrase the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s scathing speech at the United Nations, we continue to watch, and how dare they continue to look away and say in the same breath that they [the heads of states] are doing enough. But watching is just one part of the equation.

Activism is more than just speaking out to disrupt people’s comfort zones and irrational bubbles of complacency. True activism is being on the ground, and taking action to cause the much-needed ripples that will pressure communities and governments to start solving problems that are causing disease and loss of dignity.

To have properly managed sanitation should always be viewed from the lens of human dignity. It is never a luxury, a “modern accouterments or excess,” or a joke. Access to water and proper sanitation is a basic human right, like education or having a name. It should never be dictated by the capacity of persons to purchase, but rather, it should always be a priority of governments who have the means to develop the same in any community under its jurisdiction.