Here’s why more toilets are crucial to achieving water and sanitation goals

Posted 1 November 2017

School toilet for girls in Africa
Toilets – we take them for granted in Australia. But for some, they are a luxury whose absence exacerbates water and sanitation issues.

For the first time in its 17-year history, the World Toilet Summit will be held in Australia in Melbourne from 20-21 November, bringing together an array of water and sanitation stakeholders to collaborate on global solutions. 

Hosted by the World Toilet Organization and the Australian Water Association, this year’s event aims to raise the profile of sanitation issues worldwide, while empowering delegates, exhibitors and sponsors to share their insight on best practice.

World Toilet Organization Founder Jack Sim will be presenting a keynote address highlighting how far the conversation around toilets and sanitation has come since the launch of the organisation in 2001. 

“The World Toilet Organization began the course of discussing a subject that was embarrassing and unspeakable, but one that required action,” Sim said. 

“Prior to that, toilets and sanitation was referred to as ‘water’ issues. The sanitation agenda was hidden under another bigger, more glamorous problem. It received low visibility and low funding because other water-related concerns were put first.

“The World Toilet Summit now triggers a lot of political action by putting toilets centre stage. Something that was once unspeakable has become a revolution.”

Sim said he is excited about the event taking place in Australia and is looking forward to learning about and discussing the region’s specific challenges and concerns. 

“I want to promote the importance of toilets for education, tourism and public health in this region. I want to discover what other challenges Australia is having and continue to work with local governments on solutions,” Sim said. 

“I would personally like to see Australia and New Zealand’s relationship with Pacific Islanders strengthen in this area. Helping them with sanitation issues is crucial to development.

“Development grows if people are productive, and sick people cannot be productive. Contaminated drinking water causes so much sickness. Prevention is cheaper than medical provision; the toilet is the cheapest medicine in the world.”

This year’s Summit has six key themes: movement to meet Sustainable Development Goal 6; sanitation and hygiene in crisis zones; WASH and menstrual hygiene in schools; behavioural change; social enterprise solutions; and collaborative approaches to sanitation solutions. 

Presenting a keynote address on the latest WaterAid 2017 State of the World’s Toilets Report, WaterAid Australia CEO Rosie Wheen said she is excited to share their latest research.

“The State of the World’s Toilet Report will be shining a light on sanitation and looking at it from a gender equity angle. The report will be focusing on sanitation and how important it is as a pathway to gender equality, but also as a vehicle for women and girls’ empowerment,” Wheen said. 

“Everyone has a right to health and dignity, and everyone has a right to sanitation, but girls and women have specific needs. I’ll be talking about those needs, but also highlighting that if women and girls aren’t actively participating in decision-making, those needs can’t be met.”

Similarly to Sim, Wheen has been involved in the sanitation sector long enough to see the conversation around toilets and hygiene shift; sanitation has moved from a background health issue to being understood as fundamental to development.  

“Water and sanitation are now recognised as human rights. With sanitation being added as a human right, it’s changed our approach to the issue,” Wheen said. 

“We’ve realised as a sector that water and sanitation aren’t engineering challenges, they’re human challenges that need to be approached from a behavioural change perspective.”

Importantly, Wheen said the introduction of sanitation as a specific issue under Sustainable Development Goal 6 has highlighted it as a fundamental concern requiring focused action. 

“It’s such a historic and exciting time. We know what needs to be done. It’s not rocket science; the technology is there, what’s missing is the financing and a focus on human resources to do it. We shouldn’t see SDG 6 as some lofty ambition, it is absolutely achievable,” Wheen said. 

“It is essential that water and sanitation is addressed if we are to achieve the other SDGs. We must create a healthier, fairer and more sustainable world, and we can’t do that if millions of people don’t have access to a toilet.”

And while the World Toilet Summit will dedicate two days to the discussion of global water and sanitation issues, Sim encourages the Australian water and sanitation sectors not to forget World Toilet Day on 19 November, saying the occasion is a great opportunity to raise awareness within communities. 

“I encourage Australia to take this auspicious day to think about and discuss toilets and sanitation,” Sim said. 

“When you legitimise the taboo, lots of positive things come about. We go to the toilet six to eight times a day – using toilets is actually a cultural thing. And we can use these events to promote the need for a good toilet culture.”

The World Toilet Summit will be held in Melbourne from 20-21 November. Head online to view the event program and register
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