Imagine your life without a toilet. We do not think twice, but for nearly half of India’s one billion strong population, it is an unattainable luxury. Without a clean and safe place to go, public health is at serious risk.
The Deputy Secretary-General for the UN, Jan Eliasson, said that this is a worldwide issue which people “don’t like to talk about.” However, the more we talk about it the better.
Saraswathi, 14, is part of the Paniyan tribe living in a remote village in the Nilgiri mountains, South India. She has no access to a toilet. Her younger brothers, Sasi and Sudi, openly defecate in the forest but she is a young woman and must wait until night when darkness can provide dignified cover.
Having no toilet to use during the day means women are susceptible to kidney stones and dehydration. For the whole tribe, it means drinking contaminated water and suffering from illness such as diarrhoea as a result. Speaking to Sasi and Sudi’s mother, she admitted ‘once a week is normal’ for diarrhoea.
With the help of villagers, volunteers built 17 leach pit toilets which are eco-friendly and suited to the environment. We taught hand-washing with soap using tippy taps built from resources to hand. The sustainability of this approach should mean that Saraswathi and her family benefit from cleaner water and better sanitation far into the future.
However this project goes only a small way to improving the worldwide sanitation issue. The United Nations now recognises sanitation as a human right and included it as part of the Millennium Development Goals to ‘half the number of people without access to clean toilets by 2015’.
Recently there has been more publicity surrounding the issue with ‘World Toilet Day’ (November 19) drawing attention to the issue and attempting to break the taboo. This is alongside Microsoft founder Bill Gates launching his “Reinvent the Toilet” campaign in 2011 to encourage innovative researchers to design a sustainable and safe way to manage human waste. This summer Matt Damon also jumped on board visiting villagers in southern Tamil Nadu to help India’s poor get access to clean water and toilets.
By learning more and raising awareness about this issue, everyone can play a small part in making sure every single person has their basic right to sanitation.