Three Reasons Why "World Toilet Day" Matters

Written by

Lisa Schechtman
Lisa Schechtman Lisa Schechtman is the head of policy and advocacy at WaterAid in America, the U.S. member of WaterAid International, the world’s largest NGO focused on providing safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene education (WASH) services for poor communities in 27 countries around the world. Prior to joining WaterAid, Lisa served as policy director at the Global AIDS Alliance, and was a member of the Developed Country NGO Delegation to the Board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Lisa has a Masters of Arts in International Human Rights and Global Health Affairs from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in English Literature and French Language from Northwestern University. She is based in Washington, DC.

It’s been 12 years since November 19 was first deemed World Toilet Day. This year, though, there’s a lot more fanfare.  That’s because the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution that, for the first time, makes November 19 an official day of international observance to recognize the 2.5 billion people in the world who live without a toilet.

Civil society organizations like WaterAid have celebrated World Toilet Day without official recognition from the General Assembly since 2001. So does it really matter that the global diplomatic community has now officially endorsed activities we were doing anyway?

The answer is yes. Here are three reasons why.


1) Toilets are no laughing matter

World Toilet Day isn’t exactly the easiest “holiday” to observe. It makes people cringe, feel impolite or resort to juvenile jokes. Yet, for a full 40% of the world’s population, life without a toilet, even a basic pit latrine, is a painful reality, whether we want to talk about it or not.


Every year an estimated 1.5 million children under five die from causes related to lack of access to good sanitation. Diseases caused by open defecation and poor waste management include trachoma, which blinds four people every hour of every day; diarrhea, the second largest single cause of preventable child deaths in the world; and intestinal worms, which impact one billion people, mostly children, leading to a range of impacts such as malnutrition and delayed cognitive development.


World Toilet Day is fun, a good excuse to be a bit cheeky and maybe even a bit crass, in order to engage everyone and make toilets more accessible in conversation and in reality. This year, though, we have the endorsement of every government in the world. Like it or not, when governments start talking about something, especially something difficult or controversial, it usually becomes more mainstream.  We’ll still have fun with World Toilet Day, but this year and every year hence, it won’t be just civil society’s fun.


2) We need a new global framework to end poverty

In 2000, the UN General Assembly made another unanimous decision related to toilets: the decision to create the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs are a framework to eradicate extreme poverty, focusing on eight priority areas which have strongly influenced donor and national governments ever since. One goal includes a target to cut in half the proportion of the global population living without at least a basic pit latrine or better toilet. At the current rate of investment, though, that target won’t be reached until 2026.


The reality is that we’ve still got a long way to go before everyone has access to a toilet, and we need a better plan to get there.  With the MDGs set to expire in 2015, whether we’ve met all the targets or not, it’s time to devise a new framework for human development. It will be up to governments—the same governments that just made World Toilet Day official—to approve and implement the new framework.


The post-2015 framework must reflect the needs and voice of the poor if it is to succeed. In poll after poll, safe drinking water and sanitation rank high in people’s minds.  For example, in global polling used by the UN to kick off the process of defining a post-2015 framework, safe drinking water and sanitation ranked in the top five, out of nearly 20 options, worldwide.


In order to ensure this translates into toilets people actually use, we must all work to create accountability for UN Member States. That’s why WaterAid has created a toolkit outlining why water, sanitation and hygiene matter for global health, environmental sustainability, nutrition, and poverty reduction. Endorsement of World Toilet Day by the UN General Assembly gives us momentum for ensuring that sanitation is a priority for the next twenty years or more. But we can’t do it alone.


3) You can join us

Eradicating poverty and fighting for the basic needs for all people everywhere is not just the purview of governments and NGOs. As the UN polls indicate, we all have a role to play and the opportunity to tell our governments what we want. Here are three ways you can help celebrate the first official World Toilet Day and ensure that we all keep talking about poo!

  1. Tell your Congressional Representative you support the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2013
  2. Share our new video about how awesome toilets are!
  3. @WaterAidAmerica, and use the hash tags #ThankYouToilet and #WorldToiletDay to join in!

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