WASH 101: S is for Sanitation

September 26, 2018

Posted by Amanda, Development Director

I live with a toddler who recently developed an interest in beginning potty training… so “toilet-talk” is pretty common in my life. So, trust me, there are a thousand different words for human waste. Some are scientific and technical [feces or excrement], some are inappropriate to say in front of children [or on our blog], but my personal favorite word to describe human waste is “poop”. Maybe because it is a word we use most often with our children – it is both simple and evocative.

So, here’s your warning [in case you’re not a fan of “toilet-talk”] – in this post, we’re going to talk about poop. Because it matters where you poop. I care about where you poop. And if you care about clean water – then you also should care about where people poop.

Globally, at least 2 billion people drink water contaminated with feces – or as we’re calling it today – poop. That poop comes from somewhere. Some of it comes from animals but that poop also comes from people.

So, where are people pooping?

892 million people worldwide still practice open defecation, which is a somewhat fancy way of saying that they don’t have access to any type of bathroom and so they poop wherever they happen to be. And on the other end of the sanitation spectrum, you have “safely managed” sanitation facilities.

Let’s start on the “safely managed” end of the spectrum. In order to be considered “safely managed” a sanitation facility needs to meet a few requirements. First, the facility has to hygienically separate poop from human contact. Second, it should not be shared with other households. Third, it should provide for a way for the poop to be treated before it is released back into the environment… this usually means a sewer or septic tank. And optimistically, 39 percent of the global population uses a safely managed system. [I say optimistically because most countries don’t keep stats on how sewage is treated… so while a toilet that connects to a sewer is considered safely managed… that sewer system may occasionally or frequently leak untreated waste into the environment.  Or while a septic system can be safely emptied and treated – frequently people report that their tanks have never actually been emptied or the waste treated.]

So, optimistically, that leaves 61 percent of the population of the world pooping somewhere that can or does lead to human poop contaminating water sources that people use to drink, prepare food, and wash. So how are we supposed to ensure access to clean water unless we also can ensure that everyone has access to a safely managed facility where they can poop?

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that a lack of access to sanitation facilities is a particularly difficult issue for women and girls. Trying to find a safe, private place can be a dangerous prospect for many women – women who don’t have access to a bathroom face a heightened risk of sexual assault. And it is all too common for girls who begin menstruating to drop out of school, because there isn’t any safe space for them to manage their menstruation.

Finally, lack of access to adequate sanitation facilities can also be a significant factor in maintaining good health.  If you’re pooping in the bushes – I think you can be pretty sure that there isn’t a sink and soap to wash your hands around the corner… and we should all know the importance of hand washing in the battle against the germs that make us sick. We’ll dig into that next month when we explore the “H” of WASH – Hygiene.

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