World Toilet Day aims to make sanitary conditions available for all

The first UN-backed Toilet Day highlights the problems the developing world faces without proper sanitation

Demonstrators carry signs to mark World Toilet Day in New Delhi, India on Nov. 19.
Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Toilets are rarely discussed in most of the world, even though people with access to toilets use them an average of five times a day. But for much of the world, toilets are still a luxury, and the absence of them provokes crisis.

On Tuesday much of the underdeveloped world celebrates World Toilet Day, which is meant to bring focus to the diseases and social unrest that can occur when people don’t have sanitary places to relieve themselves. While the World Toilet Organization, the Singapore-based non-profit behind the celebratory day has been around since 2001, this is the first day the United Nations has supported the event.

“We must break the taboos and make sanitation for all a global development a priority," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Tuesday.

Ban stressed that having access to a toilet is an extremely serious issue. They help prevent the spread of diseases that have ravaged many poor areas around the world.

Each year, more than 800,000 children under five die from diarrhea, the U.N. said, many due to poor sanitation.

Lack of access to clean bathrooms in schools also deters many women and girls from pursuing their education after they reach puberty, says a report titled "We Can't Wait" from WaterAid, a private agency working with the U.N. and Unilever, the multinational consumer goods company.

"Sanitation is central to human and environmental health," said Ban as he launched a campaign to end open defecation by the 2025 and cut in half the number of people lacking decent sanitation. "It is essential for sustainable development, dignity and opportunity."

By working together -- and by having a frank and open discussion on the importance of toilets and sanitation -- we can improve the health and well-being of one-third of the human family," added Ban. "That is the goal of World Toilet Day."

But according to a World Toilet Organization report, the world is far from meeting its 2025 goal.  While open defecation rates have fallen dramatically in the last few decades, 15 percent of the global population still defecates in the open.

Of that group, 60 percent are located in South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa.

India has a particularly bad toilet problem. Less than one-third of rural Indian households have toilets. Even in urban areas, where most people do have them, the plumbing and sanitation systems raise health concerns.

Exacerbating India’s issues is its former caste system, where people formerly called “untouchables” still often are forced to clean human waste from open lavatories.

A 1961 government report said there were 3.5 million Indians performing the task. The government says that number is now down to about 64,000, but international humanitarian organizations dispute this number.

The situation is slowly improving in India and elsewhere. Laws have been passed in India and other countries requiring government buildings and government-built schools to include toilets. And organizations such as UNICEF are spending millions to bring toilets to communities without them, including Tacloban - the city destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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