Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Toilets are not glamorous

But they are necessary. And in rural Rajasthan, they are not taken for granted.

A boy takes bath outside newly built toilets in a village on the outskirts of Nagapattinam, about 200 miles from the southern Indian city of Chennai Dec. 24, 2005. (Jagadeesh NV/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Over 800 villagers lined up one day last month to celebrate the installation of a new public toilet in Janadesar, a tiny community in India’s Rajasthan desert. They had reason to celebrate the event, because a toilet is not taken for granted in rural Rajasthan, where only one in eight people has access to one.

What is shocking is that this is not unusual. Worldwide, about 2.5 billion people — 40 percent of the global population — do not have access to basic sanitation. Most of those without access live in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

A decade ago, world leaders committed to do something about this. One of eight Millennium Development Goals was focused on water, calling for a reduction by half in the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.

On access to drinking water, we are poised to meet the goal, with 87 percent, or 5.9 billion people, now having gained reliable access to safe water. But on sanitation, even if 1.3 billion people have gained access to toilets since 1990, progress has been too slow and we risk falling short of the goal.

Why is this? It may be as simple as this: Toilets are not glamorous. The dangers of open defecation are not usually discussed. This is seen as an unpleasant, even embarrassing, subject. It is rare to see people celebrate a toilet as they did in Janadesar. Even there, the event was organized by a local NGO, the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, to raise awareness of the sanitation issue.

The fact is that open defecation is also a deadly subject. Globally, an estimated 1.1 billion people defecate in the open, and about 1.5 million children die every year because they lack access to safe hygiene, sanitation and water.

These figures are grim evidence of a global public health emergency. The good news is that solving it is within our grasp. Modest investments have produced dramatic results in many countries.

In Burkina Faso, a water supply project tripled sanitation coverage to almost 1.5 million people living in the capital city of Ouagadougou. In Mumbai, 400,000 urban dwellers gained access to sanitation thanks to a Mumbai Slum Sanitation Project.