Every day, several times (I hope) each one of us goes to the loo. We take sewage systems that not only function but are pretty invisible and don’t smell for granted. But it hasn’t always been this way;
In London in the 1860s terrible smells from the Thames caused the government to develop new sewerage systems which in turn dramatically improved health – death rates per 1,000 dropping from 24 in 1870 to 19 in 1890.
And then there was Florence Nightingale fresh air, soap and water reduced the death rate of hospitalised soldiers in the Crimea from 42% to 2.2% in 4 months.
But why the history lesson?
Shit matters. Sanitation remains one of the biggest development challenges – it’s just something we don’t like to think or talk about.
According to WHO 37% of the developing world’s population – 2.5 billion people don’t have access to decent sanitation facilities. In urban slums lack of access to household sanitation is a particular issue for women. For some social norms about women not been seen to defecate in the open keep then confined until the hours of darkness, leading to medical problems and much greater risk of being attacked. For women and particularly young girls as they start to menstruate no access to loos can mean no school and embarrassment.
You will of course have heard of flying toilets – plastic bags people crap in and then fling as far as possible often pretending it wasn’t them and/or caring who the bag hits or where it lands.
Transmission of waterborne diseases such as cholera are exacerbated by environmental pollution and low levels of personal hygiene. In Zimbabwe an inspirational cholera nurse described the disease as eating or drinking a stool – not a good thought!
This is technology injustice. We’ve known about the advantages of sanitation for more than 100 years yet many millions of people don’t have access.
Practical Action are delivering big WASH (water supply, sanitation and hygiene) programmes and we are ambitious to do more. For example in Kenya we plan in our new strategy to directly improve the water and sanitation access of 850,000 people. We will work in the slums of 10 cities and towns on things like the construction of loos, hand washing facilities and showers, latrine emptying, etc.
Shit matters and is personal – I can’t imagine life without my loo, when I’ve had to for short periods on visits overseas without access to a toilet I’ve crossed my legs, felt embarrassed by bushes and thanked God for even the most basic latrine. We have to be prepared to talk about sanitation as it’s too easy to pretend shit really doesn’t happen. We can’t end shit we can make sure it’s well taken care of!