What Is the Global Sanitation Crisis and Why Should I Care?

For most people in the Western world, a toilet in their living space is an absolute given. You probably wouldn’t even consider living somewhere that didn’t have a bathroom and running water.  But, for a shocking 2.3 billion people — almost a third of the global population — safely managed sanitation is not a given. ZuLoo is on a mission to change that.

Let us just give you a few stats for context:

  • More people have access to a mobile phone than they do to a toilet.
  • 673 million people have to practice open defecation.
  • It’s estimated that 297,000 children under five die each year from diarrhoeal complications because of unsafe drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene.

We hear a lot of talk about clean water, climate change, and safe housing—and for very good reason. But an equally as important part of this complicated puzzle is sanitation. It’s often lumped together with other issues, but ZuLoo believes that it needs a place of its own among the social-problem-titans of the world. We want you to think so too!

What Is the Global Sanitation Crisis?

We should all start on the same page: the World Health Organization (WHO) defines the sanitation crisis as “the absence of safe and private toilets.” This means that over 1.7 billion people do not have a toilet in their homes and are forced to go to public places or outside—and we’re not just talking about a rustic outhouse situation. We’re talking about open defecation, which is the practice of going to the toilet in fields, forests, rivers, and anywhere else you can think of that isn’t a toilet.

WHO also estimates that at least 10% of the world consumes food that’s irrigated by wastewater. You read that right—poop water is used to grow and prepare their food. That is not the right kind of fertilizer. However, human waste can be a great fertilizer when composted and processed properly. With the right technology and knowledge, using human waste is a viable way to contribute to greater crop production for many people around the world.

Put yourself in this situation for a minute: no comfort, no privacy, almost no hygiene. Your streets are full of someone else’s excrement. Your children have to walk through it to get to school and people bring it into your home when they come to visit. Think about the smell. Imagine yourself walking 4-5 miles away from your home, sometimes at night, to find a private place to go to the bathroom. People are living this every day and these are just the experiences, not even the devastating effects that cut so many lives short because they don’t have access to a toilet.

The United Nations has set many goals to provide better sanitation by 2030, but if current trends continue, 2.8 billion people will still lack safely managed sanitation by that time. In other words, we still have a lot of work to do.

Woman shoveling mud

Why Should I Care About the Sanitation Crisis?

The consequences of the sanitation crisis are far-reaching and devastating. In addition to the obvious health risks associated with open defecation and exposure to human waste, the sanitation crisis also contributes to poverty, gender inequality, and several other social issues.

Let’s start with health. Poor sanitation is one of the leading causes of diarrheal disease, which is a major killer in developing countries. WHO estimates that 829,000 people die each year because of inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene, representing 60% of total diarrhoeal deaths. Poor sanitation is a major player in diseases like intestinal worms, schistosomiasis, and trachoma.

And the health consequences don’t stop there. Poor sanitation also leads to malnutrition, as exposure to human waste can contaminate food and water supplies. This can lead to stunted growth and a number of other health problems.

But the impacts of the sanitation crisis go beyond health. Poor sanitation also contributes to poverty, as it limits economic opportunities and traps people in a cycle of poor health and financial insecurity. For example, open defecation often prevents children from attending school, as they are more likely to miss class when they are sick. This not only limits their education but also their future earnings potential.

If you’re a woman in a place without toilets, not only do you have to find a place to go to the bathroom, you have to avoid sexual assault while doing so.  In many cultures, women and girls are expected to wait until nightfall to relieve themselves, which means they are often walking alone in the dark—a prime target for assault.

two women carrying baskets on their heads

Almost half of the schools in the world do not have handwashing facilities with soap and water available to students. Clean and safe toilets help keep more girls in school and increase attendance rates. Far too many girls miss out on education just because of the lack of a clean and safe toilet. (WHO/UNICEF 2020)

With all social issues, there’s often a feeling of disconnect when the problems aren’t right in front of us or impacting our day-to-day lives. It can be hard to muster up the compassion to care about someone else’s struggles when we’re focused on our own. But the truth is, we’re all connected. What happens to one person affects us all, whether we realize it or not.  When it comes to the impact toilets have on the global economy, for every $1 invested in basic sanitation, the return is $2.5. And in the case of basic sanitation in rural areas, every $1 returns on average more than $5 in saved medical costs and increased productivity (Hutton/WHO).

Save Lives—One Toilet At a Time

It would be completely natural to think: Why not just build some more public bathrooms? But without the infrastructure to manage these spaces, they often become dirty and dangerous, filled with animals and human waste.

The solution is not more public toilets, but rather improved sanitation infrastructure that includes safe and private toilets in every home. This is what we call safely managed sanitation, and it’s the only way to end the sanitation crisis.

The good news is that the sanitation crisis is solvable. We have the technology and know-how to provide clean water and sanitation solutions for everyone in the world. What we need is the political will and financial commitment to make it happen. If you’d like to learn more, visit us here and join ZuLoo in our mission to provide safe sanitation for all.