Here in the UK, a toilet is a necessity that we are lucky enough to take for granted – a subject for humour, or something we’d prefer not to talk about.
Yet for billions of people around the world, sanitation is a serious issue. With a staggering 2.6 billion – nearly 40% of the world’s population – living without basic, safe sanitation, it’s time we talked about toilets. It’s a shocking fact that diarrhoea, caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation, is the biggest killer of children under five in Africa. In fact, globally it kills more children every year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.
This is a crisis that reaches beyond health. It traps communities in poverty as the diseases it causes put a constant strain on health services and prevent adults from working and earning a living. In total the lack of water and sanitation costs Africa 5% of its GDP each year.
When it comes to education, the lack of safe water and sanitation throws up barrier after barrier, with illness, the burden of caring for sick relatives, the hours spent walking to find water for the family and poor or non-existent toilet facilities at school all conspiring to keep children, especially girls, out of the classroom.
Solutions don’t have to be hi-tech or expensive. Something as basic as a clean, properly designed pit toilet can make a huge difference – saving lives, helping more children stay in school and giving adults the good health they need to go out and earn a living. In fact, providing clean water and improving sanitation are two of the most cost-effective development investments we can make – it’s estimated that for every £1 invested in these services, £8 is generated – and these fundamental necessities must be in place if investments in education and health are to be as effective as they can be.
The UK Government has already achieved much through its own investment in water and sanitation, and the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid is something we should all feel very proud of.
Sadly, there is still a long way to go. At the current rate of progress, the UN Millennium Development Goal to halve the proportion of people living without basic sanitation by 2015 will be missed by a billion people. If we are to stop this growing crisis, we need to take action.
To mark World Toilet Day today, 19 November, international charity WaterAid is launching a campaign, Water Works, to highlight the life changing impact of sanitation and safe water ahead of next April’s High Level Meeting on water and sanitation in Washington DC. High level involvement from the UK Government is critical to the success of this meeting. I’ll be putting my support behind the campaign, and you can too at www.wateraid.org/waterworks.
* Don Foster (pictured above with Peter Bottomley) is Lib Dem MP for Bath.