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Water & Sanitation

The poo taboo

Flickr: Mangus Franklin

The issues of water, sanitation and hygiene are so often discussed together that they have their own acronym, WASH. And I think it's a cute acronym, but when we put all of these issues together (water, sanitiaton and hygiene), the problem is that the issue of sanitation is overshadowed by the need for clean water. Don't get me wrong, providing access to safe water is certainly important, but there's a preference for talking about water over talking about human waste. And it’s not surprising; water is not a topic that people think of with disgust. Pictures of clean water pouring through children’s hands are nicer than pictures of latrines. It's not pretty... but not talking about the effects of improper sanitation and open defecation costs the world $260 billion dollars a year and thousands of lives: it isn’t a mistake we can afford.

The World Bank estimates that inadequate sanitation costs $260 billion dollars per year annually. The costs come from a combination of health effects and lost productivity. One of the main costs comes from the amount of time that gets lost trying to find a place to defecate when there are no latrines or toilets available. 1 billion people have to resort to “open defecation” and it’s calculated that people can lose up to 2 and a half days a year in productivity.
Worse still, this is particularly damaging for women and girls. Girls are less likely to attend school when there are no sanitation facilities, disabiling them to reach their potential. Searching for a place to defecate makes women vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse. Consider that 2.5 billion people live without improved sanitation. With the costs of open defecation and poor sanitation on record, there is nothing that should keep leaders from making this issue a priority. But still, the resistance to talking about sanitation is strong.
This is the "Poo Taboo". And unfortunately we can see its effect in the first drafts of the Sustainable Development Goals, the most important development agreement of the decade. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a series of goals agreed upon by developing nations that will build on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and form the post-2015 development agenda. These goals concentrate on improving the numbers of kids in school, or access to healthcare, women's empowerment etc.
As of right now there is no mention of open defecation in the SDGs. If the goal of ending open defecation isn’t explicit, it will continue to be overlooked as a priority for some developing nations, which endangers women, and costs billions of dollars in lost productivity. 
Luckily, we aren’t the only people who realize an urgent need to break the “poo taboo”. The best way we can do this is to ensure  the goal of ending open defecation is made explicit in the SDGs. The United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, launched an amazing Campaign to End Open Defecation. And now, the UN has resolved to officially recognize World Toilet Day. Momentum is building, but those working in the development community can’t do it alone. Politicians need to know that the public will get behind this issue...
The truth is that open defecation is costing all of us in terms of money, equality, and human life. We need to be willing to talk about this issue if we expect our world leaders to talk about. So together, let's break the poo taboo!!
Michelle Kennedy