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Water & Sanitation

Test your knowledge on open defecation

By Christina Nuñez|

Flickr: European Commission DG ECHO

True story- when I started working at Global Citizen I didn’t know what a latrine was. How things have changed! Now, it seems that words like latrine, toilet, open defecation and sanitation are so ingrained into my vocabulary that I forget they’re not socially acceptable at the dinner table (at least not yet.)

Now don’t judge- it’s not that I have a potty mouth. I’ve just become aware of a global crisis to which I was previously ignorant- the water, hygiene, and sanitation crisis that is.

If you’ve spent a lot of time on Global Citizen then you may be familiar with these issues already, but if not have no fear- you’re not alone. For obvious reasons, these issues are often ignored as people feel uncomfortable talking about them. Well, UNICEF thinks it’s time for that to end, and we couldn’t agree more.

So let’s break it down- here are 11 things you should know about open defecation and its impact on the world’s poor:

1. Access to improved sanitation means clean and safe toilets for all.

UNICEF India Dhiraj Singh

To ensure privacy, toilet facilities should also come with locks on the doors.

2. 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation facilities.

UNICEF/ MLWB2012-01629/ Christine Nesbitt

Wrap your mind around this- today, more people have access to mobile phones than to a toilet or a latrine. Without improved sanitation facilities, people are forced to practice open defecation.

3. Improved sanitation matters in the global fight against poverty.

UNICEF/2012/ Dhirag Singh

Toilets save lives by protecting kids from threats to their security and their health. Not only is open defecation dangerous for kids who must leave the safety of their homes to relieve themselves, but growing evidence shows that children living in households and communities with poor sanitation are much more likely to have stunted growth.

4. Poor sanitation, hygiene, and unsafe drinking water contribute to child deaths.

Brian Sokol, UNICEF

Here’s a startling fact: one child every 2.5 minutes dies from diseases caused by poor sanitation, hygiene, and unsafe drinking water. How, you ask? Well, as my colleague Will so eloquently put it, “It works like this: there are germs in shit. When flies land on it, they carry one gram of crap with each of their six legs. Those same flies then land on the food that people eat. The germs that are in the feces is then eaten.”

It’s a deadly combo- when feces are left out in the open, the germs don’t just spread to whatever food is lying around, they also spread to the drinking water further contaminating it. Then, children who practice poor hygiene put themselves at further risk, allowing those germs to travel from their hands and into their mouths.

5. Open defecation is a global problem that affects a lot of people.

UNICEF/ NYHQ2008-1192/ Kate Holt

Over 1 billion people practice open defecation for a lack of options. Don’t lose all hope yet though, because progress is possible. Over 1.9 billion people have gained access to sanitation since 1990.

6. Open defecation contributes to a bunch of other problems.


For women & girls in particular, open defecation puts them at risk for being abused/ sexually assaulted while they attempt to find privacy outside. Schools without safe, clean facilities also deter girls from coming to school, especially when they’re on their periods.

Aside from these consequences, open defecation also leads to national economic losses.

7. The global economic loss due to poor water and sanitation access is huge.


Just how huge? We’re talking about over $260 billion. There are many reasons for this economic loss, but here are just two: when students miss school because they lack proper sanitation facilities, they miss out on job opportunities that would have helped rev up the economy. Additionally, poor water and sanitation access make adults sick. When they’re sick, they miss out on work, thus affecting their ability to provide for their families and preventing them from contributing to the economy.

8. Open defecation is not unique to just a few countries.


In fact, 27 countries have more than ¼ of their population practicing open defecation according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

9. To spread awareness we’re celebrating World Toilet Day on November 19th.

UNICEF/ NYHQ2006-1846/ Josh Estey

World Toilet Day is an important part of that effort. It’s an opportunity to bring together different groups such as the media, private sector, development organizations and civil society to get the word out to the global community and advocate for safe toilets.

10. We’re also calling on world leaders and businesses to make strong commitments to ending open defecation.

UNICEF India/ Vickey Roy

We all have a role to play, and governments and businesses are no exception. National and local governments need to allocate the necessary financial and human resources to end open defecation, by promoting good sanitation and hygiene practices, and supporting households to access clean and safe toilets.

Businesses need to step up investments in improving sanitation, and civil society organizations must continue to monitor progress on the ground so the world has evidence of what is working and where.

11. We need you too!


Join the movement and visit to find out more, then become an advocate by helping to spread the word.


Christina Nuñez