(HN, 11/19/11) - In 2001, the World Toilet Organization (WTO) declared November 19, World Toilet Day (WTD). Today it is celebrated in over 19 countries with over 51 events being hosted by various water and sanitation advocates.
This sometimes embarrassing to talk about subject is actually no laughing matter, and in the struggle to discuss it, you will find declarations of “Ode to the Commode”, “Let’s Talk Sh*t”, “Let’s Have a Sanitation Celebration” and “An Ode to a Revolutionary Device” as common references.
Founded by Jack Sim, who created both the WTO and WTD to raise global awareness of the struggle 2.6 billion people on the planet face every day having no access to proper, clean sanitation – WTD is now in its 11th year of celebration.
The organizations signature campaign – the "Big Squat" – is the premier global event bringing awareness to this often unmentionable issue.
Indeed, clean sanitation is a luxury in many parts of the world. Having one in your own home even, is a rarity. With nearly 40 percent of the globe not having adequate or “any” toilet facilities, the human need we all have to excrete often leads to open defecation which can pollute ground water, contaminate agriculture, and spread diseases such as cholera, typhoid and hepatitis A.
When people defecate in the open, flies feed on the excrement and can carry small amounts away on their bodies and feet; then when they touch food, the germs are passed on, which may later be eaten by another person and the cycle becomes a global problem.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) almost 1.8 million children every year, approximately 5000 every day, die as a result of diseases caused by unclean water and poor sanitation. Africa’s situation is the most concerning globally where more than 60% of the continents billion people do not have access to a toilet; and in 2007, Afghanistan was ranked as the worst place in the world by the “State of the World’s Toilets” report—92% of the country’s 26.6 million people lack proper toilet facilities.
Not only does poor sanitation result in health problems and death, it has economic implications for a country.
“Improved sanitation increases primary school enrollment, reduces illnesses so children miss fewer school days, increases productivity among adults, provides safety to women, and reduces the pollution of water resources. The costs of environmental and health degradation due to inadequate water and sanitation services have been estimated at more than 1 percent of GDP in Colombia, 0.6 percent in Tunisia, and 1.4 percent in Bangladesh,” says the World Bank.
Not to mention, not having clean sanitation places so many people globally in a humiliating and inhumane situation.
So what is being done around the world to make this situation better? Plenty. And organizations such as
WaterAid.org, UNICEF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation now see access to clean toilets as a right, and an urgent need which is one of the most important components of sustainable development the world can undertake.
HUMNEWS interviewed philanthropist and supporter of World Toilet Day, John Kluge Jr, to find out more:
Q: John, people find the idea of `Talking Toilets’ difficult. Why does it matter?
A lot of jokes come about when you talk about toilets. It is a very difficult subject. And, I don't think we've created the language to talk about it without perhaps there being an ‘ick factor. But in fact when you talk about toilets the issue amounts to almost 1/3 of the people on the planet today not having access to sanitation services, something many in the world now take for granted. And, even beyond that is the issue of clean drinking water and most of the cause of dirty water is a lack of sanitation. It’s a clear cycle.
Q. The issue is certainly a humanitarian one, but in terms of finding reasons to support investment in making clean sanitation a right, globally, why should people care?
The opportunity is enormous. The returns of investment for every $1 dollar spent on building new sanitation facilities and toilets is between $7 and $8 dollars. If we did provide every person and every community in the world that now needs toilets, in purely financial terms that is a $650 billion dollar return on investment. But of course, on a humanitarian level the impact is even greater because supporting clean sanitation will save lives, improve education, and create great health on the planet. For instance, 1 out of every 3 girls drops out of school now because they don’t have clean toilets as they are maturing at puberty. And by putting a latrine in children’s schools you can eliminate 97 percent of disease. This is both a financial opportunity for the public and private community to support and take advantage of - and a human opportunity.
Q. Are the needs in cities the same as say in rural areas?
Most sanitation efforts have centered on the urban poor where a greater population of need exists. And not only is there a difference between rural and city sanitation, but there is also a difference between community sanitation and personal sanitation. In many places in the world, communities or villages don’t even have one toilet, let alone one in a house, hut or tent.
Q: Who is working on this issue around the world and what needs to be done?
The bulk of the work has been done by both ngos and governments. This is not sustainable because it is generally a one-off micro approach to let’s say one village, or one neighborhood. I believe we need to come up with models that work on a macro level and address the problem entrepreneurially and with innovation. And, we need as many people as possible to join us in this effort.
In terms of the actual kind or type of toilet needed - there is no one stop solution. The Gates Foundation made a donation over the summer of $42 million to support toilet advancement which they call one of the single biggest innovations in world development. We can put different latrines in urban or rural communities. Public facilities in urban communities for example work well, but different needs exist in rural settings. But done poorly or haphazardly without taking into consideration specifics of use, they don't work well.
Q. What are you doing yourself John to help with this effort?
My company Eirene is dedicated to creating a more peaceful and prosperous world for everyone, and we do that by only supporting issues which can impact a billion people or more. Issues such as Aging, Education and Sanitation are among our top concerns. To address sanitation, we’ve created a `super toilet fund’ which will build the supply chain, providing a million toilets over the next ten years, directly impacting the health and well-being of 100-150 million people. That's a fraction of a billion, yes. But when you realize that you can then create business opportunities and jobs around waste collection that can be converted into fertilizer, for example, you start to see ideas that can inspire others to find solutions too. And the environmental impact we can have by actually regulating the waste supply chain is enormous.
Q. Where in the world are you starting?
Over the next decade, we’re working to implement our programs in Mozambique where we’re starting, and go on to Madagascar, Zambia, Bangladesh and beyond. In Mozambique for instance only 26% of people have access to good sanitation. But we know we can’t do this alone and that we need partners. I recently had a conversation with President Clinton about the need to create sustainable supply chains for sanitation and with Patricia Arquette’s organization `Give Love’ operating on sanitation in Haiti. Ideo.com is one of our collaborators. It will truly take a village and the possibilities are endless for waste use - micronutrients, farming…we have a lot to do!
Q. Why devote your life to helping others John? What can people learn from your own experience?
I worked in foreign policy for several years. It was fulfilling but I saw the real on the ground changes that my entrepreneurial friends were making was more impactful – and I wanted to be just as helpful and, have as much fun as them. Doing good doesn’t have to be all a downer, you can have fun and make a difference too. We’ve started working on a game for good for instance. This is something I’m devoting my life to now, looking down the road 30-40 years to see these issues through. Big impact is not made in quick fixes; we have to invest long term in the future.
Q. Thanks so much for joining us John. How will you be spending World Toilet Day today?
I’ll be helping to spread the word about this critical situation by working to find solutions, and you can find me on Twitter at @klugesan. Join me!
--- John Kluge Jr. is a philanthropist and humanitarian who co-founded Eirene as a high-impact global support and investment firm devoted to solving long term critical world issues affecting more than a billion people.