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BathroomBox: Human excrement: the unmentionable global crisis noname
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Human excrement: the unmentionable global crisis noname

Copied from ID 21Urban Development Monday 4th August 2008

Although 2008 is the International Year of Sanitation, 40 percent of the world’s population, 2.6 billion people, have nowhere to relieve themselves in dignity. Instead, they are forced to use alleyways, waste-tips, river banks, railway lines and fields. Massive improvement in health and human dignity could be achieved by the safe disposal of excreta.

A book from Earthscan and UNICEF argues the need to overcome our natural distaste about human excrement and to launch a sanitary revolution of the kind which transformed public health in Britain in the 19th Century. People cannot help but defecate, and affordable technologies to manage waste in ways that respect people’s cultural norms do exist.

All too often the ‘sanitation’ component of ‘water and sanitation’ is ignored, as if water will somehow solve the personal environmental crisis afflicting the world’s poorest citizens. We talk about ‘water-related’ diseases when most are excreta-related. Typically water and sanitation programmes in the developing world spend 95 percent of their budgets on water. When water services in developing countries are privatised, sanitation for people living in poverty is usually abandoned

The human cost of our denial of the problem is massive:

  • Children, women, older people and those with disabilities suffer most from lack of access to sanitation.
  • At least 1.5 million children under the age of five die every year from diarrhoeal disease.
  • Intestinal worm infestation affects around 133 million people each year: children may carry up to a thousand parasitic worms.
  • A typical roundworm load absorbs around a third of the food a child consumes and contributes to stunting.
  • Women who have to manage the sanitation needs of children, the sick and elderly are overburdened.
  • In some parts of the world, people are still forced to work in the humiliating business of shovelling faeces by hand.
  • Most primary schools in Africa and Asia are built without toilets. Girls drop out of school, especially on reaching puberty, when they cannot protect their modesty by use of a girls-only toilet. Notions of honour force hundreds of millions of women to ‘hold themselves in’ all day. Only after dark can they seek secluded places to squat, risking harassment and sexual attack. It is not technically difficult or expensive to avoid filling rivers with untreated filth and to store excreta in a pit until it is composted and inoffensive. The World Health Organization approved many types of low-cost ecologically friendly sanitation decades ago. Lack of uptake of low-cost sanitation generally is due to donor and government indifference. The situation in urban slums is particularly scandalous.

    The authors argue that taboos about bodily functions have deterred action to address excretion and that:
  • It is not true that poor people do not demand sanitation: the book presents many examples of communities battling to clean up their neighbourhoods.
  • When communities work together – and stop being timid or embarrassed about defecation – sanitation can become an entry point for child rights, gender equity and social justice.
  • Major public investment and political energy needs to be focused on a 21st century ‘Sanitary Revolution’. The potential benefits greatly outweigh the costs.
    ‘The Last Taboo: Opening the Door on the Global Sanitation Crisis’, Earthscan, by Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett, February 2008. Full document.
    id21 Research Highlight: 26 June 2008

    Further Information:
    Maggie Black
    41 Kingston Road
    Oxford OX2 6RH

    Tel: +44 1865 513844
    Contact the contributor:

    Ben Fawcett
    70 Montecollum Road
    NSW 2482
    Tel: +61 2 6684 0269
    Contact the contributor:
    Other related links:
    UNICEF Water, Environment and Sanitation

    'Water and sanitation goals unachievable without fresh thinking'

    'Time to get serious about sanitation and hygiene in Madagascar'

    'Overcoming barriers to better sanitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo'

    'Challenges of sanitation and hygiene promotion in Burkina Faso'

    'Providing sanitation facilities and promoting safe hygiene in emergencies'

    International Year of Sanitation

    BathroomBox: Human excrement: the unmentionable global crisis noname
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