Don’t miss nature’s call, the future will be flushed out!

Kiana Alavi WaterAid Madagascar
19 Nov 2018
Photo: Kiana Alavi/End Water Poverty

On World Toilet Day, nature called and left us a message; ‘leave no one behind’! According to the United Nations (UN), more people have mobile phones than toilets. This goes against the recognition of the human right to water and sanitation by the UN in 2010. Moreover, the inclusion of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) as one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals reiterated its importance for governments worldwide. Yet, three years into the implementation of the SDGs, over 4.5 billion people still lack access to safely managed sanitation (WHO/UNICEF 2015). This impacts everyone globally, particularly the most marginalised and vulnerable members of society, such as children.

Children are the leaders of tomorrow, yet 620 million of them worldwide have no access to decent toilets at school (WHO/UNICEF 2018). Having to spend a significant portion of their day in schools, access to safely managed sanitation is a critical component of the human right to education for all children. But the figures are extremely worrisome. In the Joint Monitoring Programme’s (JMP) first ever global assessment of WASH services in schools, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF have reported that one fifths of schools worldwide do not provide any toilet facilities and nearly 900 million school children have no access to handwashing facilities. Our member in Nigeria (Hope Spring Charity Foundation) helps children, especially adolescent girls, gain access to safely managed WASH services. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with 45% of its population being under the age of 15. According to Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, since 2014, there are about 62,406 public primary schools. However, more than half of the public schools in Nigeria have no sanitation facilities; and a majority of the toilet facilities, especially in public schools in rural areas, are in a state of neglect and are poorly managed.

Kiana Alavi Madagascar
Credit: Kiana Alavi / End Water Poverty

On a visit to Central Pilot Primary school in Abuja, Hope Spring Water Charity Foundation observed its poor state of sanitation, with old water storage tanks substituting for running water facilities. Some of the pupils interviewed by the foundation said they prefer to defecate in a bush due to the lack of decent toilets in their school. Larai Kwache, a teacher at this school, talks about the problem faced by students, especially girls, when they need to use toilet facilities, stating ‘the importance of good toilets is that it keeps you, especially girls, away from infection. For example, during menstruation, after using your pad, you go to the toilet and the toilet is supposed to have water everyday – water, soap and sanitisers.’

If we look at the lack of safe toilets from a gender lens, adolescent girls are more at risk than boys. Due to the presence of poorly managed and unsustainable sanitation services, girls are forced to defecate in open or share unhygienic and unsafe toilets with boys. Going beyond the infrastructural and health issues, the absence of gender sensitive toilets leads to stigmatisation, embarrassment, and often puts them at the risk of sexual assault and rape.

Goal 4 (ensuring inclusive and quality education for all) and Goal 6 (ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all) go hand-in-hand. According to the 2018 JMP report, “the importance of WASH in schools has been recognised globally by its inclusion in the SDGs (targets 4.a, 6.1, 6.2) as key components of a 'safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environment' and part of 'universal' WASH access.” The impact of poor WASH services on child mortality rates is not hidden – more than 340,000 children under the age of five die annually from diarrhoeal diseases due to poor sanitation, poor hygiene, and/or unsafe drinking water – that is, almost 1,000 children per day.

“Children often arrive in school unprepared to learn – if they arrive at all. Malnutrition, illness, low parental investments, and the harsh environments associated with poverty undermine early childhood learning.”– 2018 World Development Report

According to the report, pre-primary and primary schools worldwide lack facilities more often than secondary schools – almost one in five primary schools and one in eight secondary schools had no sanitation service. Children are often forced to use inadequate latrines or go to the toilet outside the school grounds, mainly in bushes. The provision of these necessary services in schools not only benefits the health of all students by reducing the spread of diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea cases, but also reduces absenteeism. This in turn will help create a thriving economy due to the presence of a skilled educated workforce with high productivity levels. Safe sanitation is a human right that no child should be denied of. By extension, these children subsequently become the agents of change amongst their peers, their families, communities and society at large.

“States allocate resources to school infrastructure, specifying that ‘infrastructure must be sited within communities and include a drinking water supply and separate, private, safe sanitation services for girls’ and also that they ‘establish efficient mechanisms for supplying sanitary towels to adolescent girls who so wish, especially in rural areas, and ensure they can always have the use of sanitary facilities that they need.”- Special Rapporteur on the right to education

An increase in investment in WASH in schools from governments should not only be seen as the fulfilment of responsibilities but also as the attainment of a dignified life, sustainable economy and healthy society. Governments across all regions are accountable for the commitments they made towards achieving safely managed sanitation for all. However, accountability is hindered by “a lack of adequate monitoring and reporting on SDG6, including limited progress on implementation of commitments on targets.”. We need strong national accountability mechanisms in place to ensure that governments are being transparent and committed to fulfilling their promises to all citizens.

Some governments are taking the lead in demonstrating the urgent need for safely managed sanitation such as China’s toilet revolution, India’s Swachh Bharat Mission and Nigeria’s state of emergency for sanitation. However, we need all countries to remain committed, build capacity and invest in safe WASH services now, to reap its benefits in the future. All stakeholders must ensure that the leaders of tomorrow are provided with a sustainable world and access to their rights. We only have 12 years left to reach the SDGs, and changes must be made today to help us build a sustainable tomorrow.

Although we at End Water Poverty celebrate days such as World Toilet Day, we believe that governments, CSOs, development partners and UN agencies must treat every day as World Toilet Day.  Let’s ensure governments are held accountable from today to 2030 and beyond, reducing the number of those who lack access to safe toilets from 4.5 billion to zero.