A broken kitchen pipe and thus not being able to use our kitchen sink for a few days made be realize how much we take something like indoor plumbing for granted. Other than when camping, I can’t imagine not having easy access to faucets, showers, and toilets. Yet billions of people around the world are affected by lack of water and sanitation facilities. The World Health Organization predicts by 2015 there will be 2.7 billion people without access to basic sanitation, which is not only an inconvenience but a major health risk, resulting in diarrhea, cholera and typhoid. It is especially a high risk for children, where an estimated 1.5 million die due to lack of water, sanitation, and proper hygiene.
In India, more citizens have access to a cell phone than to a toilet and improved sanitation. That’s 638 million people who do not have access to basic sanitary facilities but 764 million with a cell phone. Needless to say, there are a lot of people using streets and fields as public toilets. Despite all the talk about the Millennium Development Goals, which call for a 50 percent improvement in access to adequate sanitation by 2015, there is a lot of work to be done and many people to be helped. A United Nations University report last year cited a rough cost of $300 to build a toilet, including labor, materials and advice. That’s probably a lot cheaper than what the Pentagon charges.
Fortunately there are organizations and social entrepreneurs working hard to change this situation.
Once such organization is the Sulabh Sanitation Movement, started in 1970 by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, who has done exceptional work developing cost effective toilet systems that have improved daily life and health for millions of people. Sulabh has also changed social attitudes toward traditional unsanitary latrine practices in slums, rural villages, and cities. According to the group’s website,1.2 million household toilets and over 7,000 community toilet blocks have been built. The sanitation facilities created by Sulabh are used by over 10 million people everyday. They have also innovated a process of recycling and reuse of human excreta for biogas generation, which you can read more about here.
If you have a strong interest in toilets, Dr. Pathak also created the Museum of Toilets, located in New Delhi. It is dedicated to the history and purpose of the toilet, with a focus on education. The museum’s website quotes Dr. Pathak as saying “The toilet is part of the history of human hygiene, which is a critical chapter in the growth of civilisation.” You can’t argue with that.