In many countries, the lack of toilets isn't just a matter of sanitation. It's also a matter of personal safety, and even life and death.
Toilets for sale on a street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti [Photo by Andrea Bruce, National Geographic]
Open defecation, unfortunately, is still a fact of life for many people around the globe. So much so that it's not just a fact of life, but also a leading cause of death among children under the age of five in many countries. The lack of secure toilets is also a leading cause of rape for women in rural India. In search for a private place to do their business, these women go out to the fields alone early in the morning or late at night to relieve themselves, making themselves vulnerable to attacks.
A toilet may be something that many of us take for granted. However—and yes, this is surprising—it's something that can be meaningful and life-changing for many people around the world.
These villagers in Bhubaneswar, India get their water from a lake contaminated by open defecation. [Photo by Andrea Bruce, National Geographic]
When photographer Andrea Bruce got assigned by National Geographic to cover the impact of global defecation, she was... well, surprised. It wasn't the kind of assignment she expected. However, as a consequence of that assignment, she has now updated her rubric on determining how developed a country is. She used to look at things like the condition of the roads, or what the country's young girls want to be when they grow up. Now, she also asks, “Do they have toilets?”
While that may seem like a comical, maybe even condescending question, Bruce is actually right on the money. Open defecation and lack of toilets are a pervasive problem in some places—a problem that access to toilets can solve. The UN, in particular, aims to make sure that everyone in the world will have access to toilets by the year 2030.
Access to toilets is an integral part in maintaining a good quality of public health. For one thing, open defecation can affect drinking water sources. At least 1.8 million people around the world use fecally contaminated drinking water, which of course can lead to a host of health problems. 2.4 billion people, however, don't have access to clean water and basic sanitation services, including toilets.
Schools in Vietnam now have bathrooms, which helped curb the open defecation problem in the country. [Photo by Andrea Bruce, National Geographic]
Clean water and sanitation go hand in hand. Clean water is necessary for sanitation, but the lack of sanitation can affect the availability of clean water. Thus, it's high time to break this vicious cycle. Fortunately, things are improving. For example, Bruce relates that open defecation is not as bad in Vietnam as it was 10 years ago. Also, in 1990, only 76% of the global population had access to improved sources of drinking water. However, by 2015, this number rose to 91%.
Still, water scarcity is still a problem that needs addressing. Once people have access to water sufficient for all their needs, sanitation can improve. Open defecation will be a thing of the past, like it is in many places in the world.
However, open defecation due to the lack of toilets can be an ingrained habit—indeed a fact of life—in many places. It's therefore up to local governments to convince people of the benefits of using toilets.
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