How much do you appreciate having a toilet at home? At work? In your local gym or health center? Sanitation and hygiene, particularly in relation to bathrooms, are things that many people in developed parts of the world take for granted. After all, they're the basics of a home. You can even buy gold-plated toilets. But huge numbers of people worldwide don't have one of any kind to go to, and consequently have to share with many other people, or go out in the open. We're not talking shared bathroom facilities in dorms here. We're talking "walk miles to an isolated toilet block," or "squat in a field late at night." This holds true even in countries that have embraced other aspects of modern life wholeheartedly. There are more people worldwide who own a mobile phone than a toilet.
Consider how recently indoor plumbing and toilets actually came along — the flushing toilet was first invented in the 1700s, and then widely popularized in the 1800s by Thomas Crapper, whose name became synonymous with it (no really) — perhaps the lack of spread isn't surprising. But flushing toilets themselves aren't new devices. There's evidence that the Aztec Empire had them, and Queen Elizabeth had one (though she reportedly refused to use it because it was insanely noisy). The lack of toilets worldwide isn't due to a lack of ingenuity; it's a real problem, and a serious one that affects women and children most dramatically. Hence the U.N.'s decision to step in and celebrate World Toilet Day, which is observed every Nov. 19.
Here are six statistics and bits of information that may make you want to hug your porcelain a little bit tighter this evening — or to give generously to organizations that are aiming to fix the problem.
1. 2.4 Billion People Worldwide Lack Access To Proper Sanitation
World Toilet Day was founded in 2013 as a combined World Toilet Organization and United Nations initiative to fix a truly horrific problem. A huge proportion of the world's population don't have access to proper bathrooms. In 46 countries worldwide, more than half of the residents are without one. It's one of the U.N.'s initiatives to give everybody on earth a private, clean toilet by 2030, and that's a mammoth task.
According to WaterAid's 2015 list, South Sudan "leads" the field, with 93 percent of its population unable to access a proper toilet, and the remainder of the top 20 is also dominated by African countries. Elsewhere, Madagascar comes in at 88 percent and Haiti at 72.4 percent. India, meanwhile, hovers at around 60 percent.
It's not for lack of running water; the Earth has more than enough to give everybody the sanitation they need. But clean toilets require infrastructure, including pipes and sewer systems, and education about hygiene and sanitation. And that get left by the wayside, particularly in countries experiencing significant upheaval, corruption, or poverty.
2. Bad Toilet Sanitation Leads To Serious Health Risks
Lack of proper sanitation leads to all kinds of horrible waterborne diseases, from cholera to diarrhea, intestinal worms, trachoma eye infections, and our old friend typhoid fever, which by all rights should have died out in the 19th century. These diseases cause devastation and death worldwide. These are everyday threats, not mythical old-fashioned ones. The health risks come at a massive cost, too. WaterAid estimates that for every $1 put into proper sanitation and hygiene worldwide, there's a $4 return because of the rise in productivity and absence of hospital and medical costs.
3. Sanitation Is A Feminist Issue
The focus of this year's World Toilet Day, which has the slogan We Can't Wait, is on the 1.25 billion women worldwide who could benefit from better sanitation. This is because the issue is disproportionately affecting them and their ability to live. Women often have to drop out of school once they start menstruating because they don't have toilets or the opportunity to clean themselves. They're also frequently in charge of helping children and the elderly find safe places to go. They risk infection and disease, too. It's estimated that women worldwide collectively spend 97 billion hours every year locating good toiletry spaces out in the open. Obviously, this vastly impacts their health and their ability to work or get education, and therefore their chances at equality.
Plus, according to WaterAid, women worldwide without access to a private toilet suffer vastly increased threats of violence and sexual harassment because of their need to venture outside to do their business — particularly at night. It's a pretty grim combination.
4. It's Particularly Risky For Children
A lack of toilets worldwide kills, on average, about one child every minute; kids are among the most vulnerable users. The second-most-common cause of death for children under five around the world is diarrhea, and that's often caused by drinking water which has been contaminated by, you guessed it, people defecating in or near streams and water sources. WaterAid estimates that up to 10 million kids under five have died since 2000 purely because of the lack of sanitation and a toilet.
5. There Are Ways To Fix This
The solution isn't just "build more toilets," though that definitely helps. The World Toilet Organization has a range of initiatives aimed at bringing home the importance of toilets and sanitation facilities in areas where they don't exist. They have a World Toilet College, which will open a branch in India in 2015 to teach sanitation procedures, from building and maintaining facilities to germ theory, and a Sanishop in Cambodia, where local small business owners are trained to construct and install toilets for customers.
You can get involved on Twitter, with hashtags like #WorldToiletDay and #WeCan'tWait. but if you want to make a serious, concrete (or porcelain) contribution, consider sending some of the hard-earned cash you earn while sitting at work to an organization that will put it to good use.
Image: Ignas Kukenys/Flickr