Saturday, November 19, 2011

World Toilet Day

Today is World Toilet Day. A day which most people won’t have heard of and fewer would understand. Let me explain. Today almost two fifths of the world’s population does not have access to even a basic toilet. That’s 2.6 billion people.

A combination of a lack of safe water and sanitation means that people are forced to live in conditions which are unhygienic at best and life-threatening at worst. Diarrhoea caused by unclean water and poor sanitation is the biggest killer of children in Africa.  That is more than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. It is entirely preventable. We can, and must do our bit to change this.

To really deal with poverty we have to understand two things: one, that all issues are interconnected, and two, that the role of women is crucial. There are few things we can do that cut across health, education, economics and social mobility like water and sanitation.

It is women who bear the brunt of a lack of safe water and sanitation. When there is no easy access to water women and children, mainly the girls, are tasked with the drudgery water collection. This can involve walking for hours in the baking heat to collect water which can be muddy, polluted or contaminated with parasites and animal waste. This is not only physically demanding, but also takes up time which could be spent earning an income, at school or looking after the family. A lack of separate toilets for girls in schools is also a hugely overlooked issue which reduces the number of girls going to school. When girls reach the age of puberty they need somewhere private and clean to manage this. Many girls simply drop out of getting a vital education for something as simple as a toilet.

Women and girls suffer the most when communities don’t have basic sanitation, facing the indignity of having to go to the toilet in the open and, in many cultures, having to wait until after dark to do so, risking sexual assault or animal attacks.

Further to this poor water and sanitation costs Sub-Saharan Africa around 5% of its GDP each year, equivalent to the amount of aid the continent currently receives from donor nations.
Yet all this can be prevented. With good sanitation facilities and safe water available close to home, precious hours that were once spent recovering from illness or walking to find water can be spent in more productive ways, from working to earn a living to looking after children or going to school and getting an education. This is what makes water and sanitation such a good investment – for every £1 spent £8 is generated in increased productivity.

We can and must stop this crisis. The scale of the problem may seem vast, but there are proven, cost effective solutions available that can not only save lives but transform them, providing the first, crucial steps out of poverty. The UK Government has already achieved much through its own investment in water and sanitation, and the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of its national income on aid is going to save and transform more lives in years to come.

Sadly, there is still a long way to go. At the current rate of progress, the UN Millennium Development Goal to halve the proportion of people living without basic sanitation by 2015 will be missed by a billion people. This simply isn’t good enough, and shows that thus far political will hasn’t been strong enough to push this issue forward. We will not succeed in a more if we do not invest in water and sanitation.

To mark World Toilet Day, international charity WaterAid is launching a campaign, Water Works, to highlight the life changing impact of sanitation and safe water ahead of next April’s High Level Meeting on water and sanitation in Washington DC. High level involvement from the UK Government is critical to the success of this meeting. I’ll be putting my support behind the campaign, and you can too at