A Disgusting Fact about Toilets


Picture an enemy that almost exclusively kills children. Well, sometimes it kills children. Sometimes it just maims them by depriving them of nutrition, damaging their brains, and keeping them from growing to their full height. This enemy kills 800,000 children a year, before we even start counting the maimed ones. It’s all over the world, and it’s known as diarrhea.

If you’re an adult with access to clean water, diarrhea is an embarrassment. It’s gross and inconvenient. If you’re a child in the developing world, though, it’s deadly. 1 in 9 child deaths is the result of diarrhea; it’s second on the list of diseases that kill kids. (Number one is pneumonia) It also causes stunting, a form of malnutrition in which children are too small for their age and suffer from reduced brain growth.

This week marked World Toilet Day, devoted to highlighting a single revolting fact: 2.4 billion people – 1 out of 3 globally – lack a basic toilet. That means they have to do their business outside, right in the middle of everything. (technical term: open defecation) And when you’ve got poop everywhere, instead of safely confined to toilets, you get diarrhea. And worms. And other dangerous, debilitating illnesses.

The good news is that we know how to stop diarrhea, and the solution is actually simple. Resource intensive, but simple. We need toilets. Toilets and all the sanitation improvements that go with them. There are toilet and sanitation designs for almost every environment – rural or urban, with or without access to running water. What is needed now is resources to build and maintain those toilets.

Resources aren’t easy to muster. They’re not coming from the household level. Sanitation activist and Professor of Environmental Engineering at North Carolina State University, Francis de los Reyes, speaking to UN Dispatch, points out that people don’t like to pay for toilets. “Why is it that in some countries, there are more households with mobile phones than toilets? Perhaps we can learn lessons from the supply and demand of mobile phones, and apply that to toilets.” Resources also difficult to generate from governments. Political elites generally have access from toilets; they don’t benefit much from public sanitation programs and therefore have no personal incentive to support them.

World Toilet Day has a funny name, but it serves an essential purpose. Teaching individuals about why they should invest in toilets for their households, and pushing governments to do what is right for their citizens. 2.4 billion people lacking toilets. 800,000 children a year dead. Those numbers are disgusting, and not because we’re talking about poop.