A story doing the rounds last week on twitter provides the perfect backdrop to IRC's World Toilet Day campaign: 16,823 toilets built in South Africa's Free State province, but without any water to flush them or sewers to flush them into.
To achieve universal access to safely managed sanitation, means that every toilet needs to be part of a sanitation system
Let’s be clear. Ending open defecation is essential as is access to toilets. Toilets are great and it’s their day and we should celebrate them – and IRC is! But the Sustainable Development Goal target is unequivocal, and to achieve universal access to safely managed sanitation, means that every toilet needs to be part of a sanitation system. Not every toilet should necessarily (or even ideally) be attached to a sewer. But containment of faeces is only the first step and without the collection, treatment and safe disposal (or preferably re-use) of its contents, a toilet is indeed nothing but a hole full of shit. Shit which will undoubtedly and inevitably make its way back into the environment causing death, disease and just a generally unpleasant environment. So that’s what IRC’s World Toilet Day campaign is about: putting the Toilet in pride of place at the heart of the Sanitation System.
Since I started working in WASH when I first joined IRC in 2000, with a background in hydrology and water resources, I’ve been hearing about how sanitation is different to water. How sanitation is all about behaviours and households; water about shared community level infrastructure. From the perspective of a systems nerd, this has always seemed a strange argument to me and I think that the SDGs strong focus on safety should finally put it to bed once and for all. Because, in the end, making water safe at the point of use requires both behaviour change and household investment; while stepping up the ladder from open defecation requires household level decisions about toilet use that are embedded in community (and beyond) level systems for the safe collection, treatment and disposal of faecal sludge.
So, on World Toilet Day, here's to serving the 2.3 billion with no toilet at all, and the 4.5 billion without a safe sanitation service: to turning World Toilet Day into World Sanitation Systems Day!