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Water & Sanitation

Australia helps carry the can on World Toilet Day

John Hill/Wikimedia Commons

This article was contributed by Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific, the Hon Steven Ciobo MP.

In Australia, we love toilet humour. The 2006 comedy, Kenny, which followed a portable toilet man about his daily business, was a local box office hit, and our televisions are awash with advertisements of puppies unravelling toilet tissue rolls around the house.

We can see the funny side of toilets, because we’re able to use a toilet and wash our hands as often as we need. The Australian Department of Social Services publishes an online National Public Toilet Map, so we can find, in a matter of seconds, the nearest of some 16,000 public toilets.

Unfortunately, for too many in the world, this is far from the case. According to United Nations estimates, around 2.4 billion people, or a third of the world’s population, don’t have access to a basic toilet, leaving them exposed to the many diseases transferred through human waste, such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery. Approximately 946 million people defecate in the open, in fields, streams, forests and open city spaces, which puts entire communities at risk of diarrheal diseases.

On 19 November, the world will mark World Toilet Day. This year, the focus is on the link between toilets and nutrition. Regular bouts of diarrhoea, caused by open defecation, poor hygiene and unclean water, contribute to poor nutrition, growth stunting and developmental impairment, preventing children from reaching their full potential. In 2014, the World Health Organization reported 159 million children under five years of age suffer from growth stunting. Nearly 1,000 children die every day from diarrhoeal diseases and poor nutrition, making diarrhoea the second leading disease killer of children, worldwide. These children are missing valuable time at school and their families are forced to spend their limited incomes on medical care, which exacerbates the cycle of poverty.

Lack of access to toilets also means women and girls are even more vulnerable to violence. When they leave their home to find a toilet, particularly at night, they face hazards from sexual assault. These women are also denied the dignity of a private place to manage their menstrual hygiene. Safe toilets at schools, clinics and public places enable women and girls to not only manage their menstruation hygienically and privately, it directly contributes to keeping girls in school.

A lack of water and sanitation services also negatively impacts on the global economy. The World Bank Water and Sanitation Program estimates the annual cost of not investing in water and sanitation worldwide is US$260 billion, due to increased health costs, reduced productivity, lost time and poor water quality. In the Pacific, an area of particular interest to me, only 31 per cent of people have access to a basic toilet. This has a seriously detrimental effect on the tourism industry, which relies on the appeal of clean water in lagoons and the ocean.

Investing in water, sanitation and hygiene is therefore essential for building the foundations of a healthy and productive community, and achieving the objectives of the Australian aid program, including education, employment and economic development. The World Health Organization estimates the benefit of investing in water and sanitation services in developing countries is at least four dollars for every dollar spent.

That's why the Australian Government is spending $125.2 million on water and sanitation activities in developing countries this financial year. Through the aid program, we are working with developing country governments, non-government organisations, United Nations agencies and the World Bank, to build and maintain toilets, and educate children about the importance of hygiene and hand washing.

World Toilet Day is an opportunity to draw worldwide attention to the importance of the humble toilet to global development, opportunity, and economic growth. It’s a time to remember the billions of people who don’t have access to a toilet, and why we should help carry the can.