Observing World Toilet Day

Posted on November 17, 2023

World Toilet Day is an important awareness campaign that highlights the lack of access to sanitation across the globe. “Poor sanitation in communities contributes to a wide range of social difficulties,” writes Elmien Claassens, a lecturer in the Department of Social Work and Criminology at UP.

Every year on 19 November, World Toilet Day inspires action to address the global sanitation crisis and reach the 3.5 billion people who do not have access to clean sanitation. Every person has the basic right to water and sanitation; however, it is a right that is infringed upon daily for millions around the world.

More than 3.6 billion people do not have access to safely managed sanitation services. As such, World Toilet Day was founded in 2001 by philanthropist Jack Sim. This day is a platform to generate knowledge on what sanitation is and raise awareness about poor sanitation. It also allows people who have good facilities to recognise the importance of it.

Securing access to basic sanitation has been acknowledged by many policies, declarations and agendas, including the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Agenda 2030, which aims to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. The health implications of not having proper sanitation services are detrimental. It has been the cause of about 432 000 deaths a year, especially in low- and middle-income countries. According to the UN, more than 700 children under the age of five die daily due to diarrhoeal diseases (such as cholera) as a result of poor sanitation, poor hygiene or unsafe drinking water.

In South Africa, having access to water and sanitation is stipulated as an essential human right as set out in the Constitution. From the current South African population of 60,4 million people, the total number of people without adequate sanitation is estimated at between 21,8 million and 25,5 million. Those who do not have access to safe sanitation use either the inadequate bucket system, unimproved pit latrines or the veld.

Access to safe sanitation means having a healthy, safe way of disposing of human waste, among setting other hygienic environmental conditions by disposing of general waste and making water drinkable. There is a general misconception about what sanitation is and so it is important to acknowledge that a toilet does not automatically equate to safe sanitation. In many local communities, people do have access to one shared toilet, which is as unjust as not having access to it at all. Other communities have physical toilets but have a poor drainage system in which the waste still filters into the communities’ water sources. Some communities in South Africa continue to use portable toilets and pit latrines, and sadly, we still often read in the news about children falling into pit toilets and dying undignified deaths.

The most well-known consequence of not having safe sanitation is the illnesses that are caused due to open exposure to faeces and contaminated water sources. Some of these illnesses range from mild to severe cholera, dysentery, typhoid, intestinal worm infections and polio, among others. Lack of sanitation is experienced in mostly poor communities, who often also do not have access to established healthcare services, which can lead to prolonged illness. Research has shown that the lack of sanitation also increases the risks of malnutrition and other digestive diseases.

Apart from the health effects, inadequate sanitation also contributes to a wide range of social difficulties. Women and girls with no access to toilets must often wait until dark to avoid drawing attention to themselves, which places them in a more vulnerable position to being abused and sexually assaulted. This does not only affect their safety, but the dignity of people is affected when they are required to live in unhealthy unsafe conditions. All of this is because people do not have access to basic sanitation services within their communities.

There is much to be done in order to achieve safe sanitation, and it might be asked if it has anything to do with social work or social welfare in general. We might not have everything, but we do have social policy that is concerned with how societies across the world meet human needs, including security, education, work, health and well-being. 

We must empower individuals and communities, especially the most vulnerable, to know their rights, and to continue to push for the realisation thereof. The basic right to safe sanitation is included in several social policies in South Africa and that has everything to do with humanity and social work in general.

We still have a long way to go. World Toilet Day is an important awareness campaign to spread the word about the lack of access to sanitation across the globe and locally, and continue to ensure that no one is left behind.

- Author Elmien Claassens, a lecturer in the Department of Social Work and Criminology at UP

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