- By Carolyn O'HaraCarolyn O'Hara is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to do a bit of traveling around the world, chances are you’ve found yourself in a situation that didn’t afford you, shall we say, “access to sanitation.” And perhaps you returned home and were more than a little grateful every time the water tap turned on and the toilet flushed, but the access soon returned to being routine. If such luxuries are surely taken for granted by most in the developed world, a new report from the U.N. drives home the effects of 2.6 billion people around the world lacking access to a decent bathroom. More than two million children die each year of illnesses caused by contaminated water.
In Kibera, the sprawling slum in Nairobi, Kenya, people defecate in plastic bags that they dump in ditches or toss into the street — a practice known as “the flying toilet.” In Dharavi, the vast slum in Mumbai, India, there is only one toilet per 1,440 people — and during the monsoon rains, flooded lanes run with human excrement.
The problem, according to the author of the report, is that bureaucrats and politicians often don’t want to talk about toilets. Such topics are often just taboo. He told the NYT that “issues dealing with human excrement tend not to figure prominently…[on] the agendas of governments.” So, despite U.N. estimates that it would cost $10 billion a year (think about that in terms of most countries’ military expenditures) to cut in half the percentage of people needing clean water and a latrine, little at the government level is ever accomplished.
Still, at least one water NGO had criticisms today not for developing country governments, but for the United Nations. A spokesperson for WaterAid told VOA News that, with nearly two dozen U.N. agencies dealing with water issues, not one U.N. department actually monitors and evaluates whether recommendations are being put in place. “[T]here is no United Nations body there standing up and naming and shaming governments, donors and recipients who are not performing on water and sanitation,” he said. With so many lives at stake, it’s time to get past the taboo.