World Toilet Day; Sanitation, Singapore and Saving Lives

No doubt a smile has crept across your face. Well sit down, maybe even sit down on the toilet and read this. Wipe off the smile. Your “first world” privilege is not limited to your tablet, your iPhone or your designer brands; you’re literally sitting on privilege. We’re living in a world where 2.3 billion people do not even own a toilet! Tal Tyagi explores the implications of poor sanitation and how the problem can be resolved.

The list of what needs to be provided for the developing world is endless: food, water, clothing, education, housing… toilets don’t exactly spring to mind. You only appreciate something when you’re without. I learnt this lesson as a child travelling around India with my family. Whether it was in Delhi, in the long winding roads up the Himalayas or in the jungles, the first question we’d ask at a prospective hotel was: “Western toilet?” You have to “go” at least six to eight times a day. It’s estimated that you spend about 38 hours a year on the toilet… that’s 1.5 years over a lifetime!

Of course, if you don’t have access to a toilet, you have to “go” somewhere. Usually, fields, bushes and bodies of water. On a mass scale, the implications of this are catastrophic. Go to the Ganges and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Washing, drinking and defecating can take place just metres apart. This is the major contributing factor to deadly fecal-oral diseases like diarrhea. Its main victims are children. It was estimated that in 2013 more than 340,000 children under the age of five died from diarrhea diseases. That’s over one thousand deaths a day!

Not only do lack of toilets and sanitation manifest in disease disasters but it’s also a human rights issue. As Sanjay Wijesekera, head of UNICEF’s global water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes put it: “The challenge of open defecation is one of both equity and dignity, and very often of safety as well, particularly for women and girls. They have to wait until dark to relieve themselves, putting them in danger of attack, and worse…”

UNICEF are making great strides forward. Both their “Stop Stunting” and “Take Poo to the Loo” campaigns in India have raised awareness about the dangers of open defecation. Nevertheless, the root of the problem is a lack of sanitation. Once the infrastructure is actually in place, public education will be more worthwhile.

Singapore is a shining example of post-colonial development. The city state’s ambitious, dynamic market economy is wedded to environmentalism and sustainability. However, it’s blossoming is somewhat of a new phenomenon. In the sixties few people used a toilet, diarrhea diseases were common and infant mortality was extremely high. It took several years of strong political leadership, public infrastructure, planning and monitoring to bring about a modern sanitation system. Today 100% of Singapore is linked to modern sanitation, rivers are clean and countless lives have been saved.

The benefits of globalization have been manifold. The problem lies in how in our lust for progress and profits, billions have been left behind. The South East Asian miracles of Singapore and South Korea are models for developing nations. In the sixties, their GDP was lower than many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa! Engagement with global markets along with attention to infrastructure has made them the shining stars of our century. The return on their investment in sanitation has been seen in reduced healthcare costs and increased productivity. More importantly, it has resulted in reduced child deaths, the protection of women and the preservation of the environment. Now that, you can’t put a price on!



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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