It’s World Toilet Day: How can we achieve adequate sanitation for all?

One in three people on Earth don’t have access to sanitation facilities, and 946 million are relieving themselves out in the open. 

Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters/File
A domestic toilet is seen inside a house in Lalitpur, Nepal, October 8, 2015. The UN says 2.4 billion people around the world don't have access to decent sanitation and more than a billion are forced to defecate in the open, risking disease and other dangers.

Today is World Toilet Day, and the United Nations is bringing awareness to the loo, because one billion people can’t find one.

About one in three people in the world don’t have access to sanitation facilities, and some 946 million are defecating in the open, say experts.

And it’s not just about finding relief: inadequate sanitation facilities can contaminate waterways and soil, contribute to malnutrition, and even stifle girls’ education.

A joint report released this summer by the World Health Organization and UNICEF shows that, while progress has been made on sanitary conditions worldwide, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done.

According to the United Nations, 15 years ago, 2,000 children under five years of age died each day from diarrhea caused by insufficient water, hygiene, or sanitation. That number has since been halved, the UN says.

But while more than two billion people have seen sanitary conditions improve since 1990, the UN target for 2015 has been missed by almost 700 million people.

What’s getting in the way?

"The progress on sanitation has been hampered by inadequate investments in behavior change campaigns, lack of affordable products for the poor, and social norms which accept or even encourage open defecation," the UN press release said.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported in July, poor sanitation habits are culturally ingrained in some parts of the developing world. So while governments and NGOs can build toilets, that doesn’t mean people will use them.  

These social norms are a major barrier to remediating the global crisis of sanitation, and some experts point to market-based solutions as the key to shifting behavior.  

"The rules and regulations, the system, blocks the practical, pragmatic, adept solutions," Jack Sim, founder of World Toilet Organization (WTO), told the Monitor in an interview.  

The WTO, an international non-profit dedicated to improving sanitation conditions, first started World Toilet Day in 2000.   

Mr. Sim argues that while governments can build toilets, they can’t necessarily make citizens want to use them.

"The toilet must … be like a spa. You go there to have your shower, you go there to have your relief, and you come out very happy. To do that you have to create a toilet that is clean, ventilated, no smell, and is maintained well. When a toilet is colorful it is nice, people want to take ownership of it. When it is dirty and smelly, who wants to go there? They will continue to openly defecate," he said.  

For the communities that initially reject new sanitary practices, Kim wants to cast toilets as a status symbol – a "rich man’s toilet," so that individuals will feel more social pressure to use them.

Dr. Francis De Los Reyes III, a professor of Environmental Engineering and University Faculty Scholar at North Carolina State University, endorses Sim’s approach.

"Reliance on continuous external funding (local governments or foreign aid) is not sustainable," he told the Monitor in an email interview. But he also acknowledges the potential gap between a sustainable, privatized operation and one that can provide sanitation for all regardless of income level.

"Initially, funding for start-up (infrastructure, initial capital costs) can be from governments and foreign aid, but in the long run, profitable businesses should be able to operate long-term, plowing back profits to more investments, reaching out to underserved areas, etc. This is going to be difficult, as the 'consumer' market will have limited resources. So there is a balance there – how much can local businesses really make versus making sure the poor can afford it."

Professor De Los Reyes also emphasizes that the whole sanitation chain must be examined to determine how private businesses can efficiently collect, reuse, and dispose of waste.

In South Africa, he says, some local officials are trying to build a "sanitation economy" by providing training, capital, and supplies. "They have tried a franchising model, and it seems to work. This is an example where local government can help create the long-term market-based solution for sanitation," he says.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to It’s World Toilet Day: How can we achieve adequate sanitation for all?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today