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One in five primary schools and one in eight secondary schools worldwide don’t have any toilets at all. Rosie Wheen and WaterAid are attempting to change this.
Abigail Keenan Unsplash
AdvocacyWater & Sanitation

The CEO of WaterAid Australia Wants to End the Sh*tstorm That Is Open Defection


Why Global Citizens Should Care
More people have a mobile phone than access to a toilet and almost a billion people are at risk due to open defecation. Global Citizen campaigns to ensure people everywhere can life healthy lives without the fear of dirty water and poor sanitation. You can take action here.

Ahead of World Toilet Day on Nov. 19, Global Citizen had the pleasure of catching up with water and sanitation champion and CEO of WaterAid Australia, Rosie Wheen. 

The activist told us all about WaterAid's dedicated mission to ensure people everywhere have access to basic hygiene and their efforts to rework the fact that one-half of all global undernutrition is linked to a lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation. 

Take Action: Urge The Australian Government to Show Leadership on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene​​​​​​​

You have been a staff member of WaterAid since its earliest days. What inspired your passion initially for water, sanitation, and hygiene issues?

I studied education and taught in primary schools in the Australian Capital Territory. Not long after graduating, I took up a volunteer role with Australian Volunteers International, which changed my career path. I spent six years in Eastern Indonesia in different roles connected to education and a key reflection I had as I worked with teachers, communities and children in schools was that there was a crisis in the classroom. The crisis was that schools didn’t have access to water, sanitation, and hygiene, which, in turn, was a barrier to education — especially for girls. When I returned to Australia, WaterAid was just starting and I joined as the first paid employee and have since dedicated myself to addressing these inequalities.

WaterAid has just released a report entitled Crisis in the Classroom - The State of the World’s Toilets 2018The report discloses that almost 1 in 5 primary schools and 1 in 8 secondary schools worldwide don’t have any toilets at all. This seems like an awful lot. What progress has been made to reduce this number? 

Since 2000, huge progress has been made. Literally billions of people have gained access to clean water and decent toilets. However, more than 840 million people worldwide still don’t have access to clean water and 2.3 billion people don’t have access to a decent toilet; 620 million of the world’s schoolchildren – almost twice the population of the USA – don’t have decent school toilets. Without these most basic services, people continue to face enormous barriers to leading healthy, dignified, fulfilling lives.


What is WaterAid’s vision for the next 20 years?

Our vision is aligned with the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6. We want every person across the world to have access to ‘safely managed’ water and sanitation by 2030. This means readily available safe and affordable drinking water at home, work, and public places. Also, a private toilet is required so faecal waste can be safely disposed of. Soap and water for handwashing should also always be available.


You have just returned from the World Water Congress. Can you elaborate on your experience and the achievements obtained?

Being part of the 8,000+ community of water professionals was a great chance to reaffirm WaterAid’s unique journey. We were started by the water industry when there was no other organisation like us focused on addressing WASH inequalities. We were part of a range of sessions contributing to debate and actions around diversity in the water sector. We also addressed gender equality and the importance of building the capacity of WASH professionals to ensure we have the human resources to deliver Sustainable Development Goal 6.

What advice would you give to Gen Z and millennials who want to get involved in the water and sanitation sector?

There are so many ways. Supporting organisations like WaterAid or Global Citizen that are working to ensure everyone has access to water and sanitation, whether that’s campaigning with us, joining events like the upcoming panel discussion, or donating. By contacting your political representatives and letting them know you want water and sanitation on the agenda. By changing your purchasing decisions and supporting companies like Who Gives a Crap. Or through work, whether working directly in the water sector yourself or getting your company to drive more sustainable practices.


You can hear plenty more about Wheen and the incredible work of WaterAid at our World Toilet Day Panel Discussion Event on Thursday, Nov. 22 at the Elizabeth Street WeWork in Melbourne. Attendance is free and drinks and snacks will be provided.