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Where does our poo go?

November 19 marks World Toilet Day, a day to celebrate all things toilet, and to raise awareness about the huge challenges the world still faces in achieving sanitation for all. This year’s theme, ‘Where Does Our Poo Go?’ reflects the raised bar for sanitation that was set in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. The focus isn’t just on getting toilets for all people everyone, but on making sure the waste from those toilets is safely managed.

According to the World Health Organisation, from 1990 to today, the number of people with access to improved sanitation rose from 54% to 68%. But, some 2.3 billion people still do not have any toilet or use an un-improved toilet. If we then start to consider the number of people who either don’t have a toilet, or have one which doesn’t safely manage excreta, then 4.5 billion people or around 60% of the world’s population fit into this category.

At this point, you might be asking yourself why the international development community has set itself such an ambitious target – that all people everywhere, all of those 4.5 billion people, have access to improved latrines which safely manage excreta by 2030.

One reason, is that fulfilment of SDG 6 – “To ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” – will help drive progress across many other SDGs related to health, education, environment and economic achievement. Reducing illness caused by poorly managed sanitation increases school attendance, reduces work days lost to illness or caring for sick children, saves money for medicines, and reduces child mortality and stunting. Toilets close to home provide safety and security for women and girls, and toilets with provision for menstrual hygiene management allow girls to stay in school. In short, toilets are much more than a place to poo.

Safely managed sanitation, means considering what happens to our poo after it enters the latrine. Waste needs to be safely contained, transported (if it can’t be treated on site), treated and disposed of or re-used. If these steps aren’t in place, untreated waste gets into water sources which communities rely on, causing disease and polluting the environment.

My recent visit to Bangladesh provides a great example of how this challenge can be addressed in practice. With the support of Australian Aid through the Civil Society WASH Fund, in Northern Bangladesh, Habitat for Humanity is supporting families to upgrade existing unhygienic latrines to build improved latrines where excreta can be safely contained for a number of years. The project has supported local community organisations to set up a revolving loan fund, allowing families to access loans for improved latrine options. Families pay off the low interest loans over a period of 18-24 months, and as they make repayments, funds can be invested into more loans for more families. Environmental sanitation has visibly improved from when I first visited these communities four years ago – there are no longer broken latrine pits leaking waste into surface water in the community, and 9 villages have been declared Open Defecation Free. Poor working families are able to afford durable latrines which bring health and dignity.

However, installing improved hygienic latrines is only part of the solution. As latrine pits fill up in years to come, what will families do with the waste? In Bangladesh, there are limited options for safe treatment – even where waste is pumped out of a full tank, it is unlikely to be safely treated and disposed of. The risks are that families unsafely empty their tanks, or stop using their latrines altogether. To reduce these risks, Habitat is installing latrines which include a split outlet pipe – this means that families can easily install a second pit when their first pit fills up. Families are educated on this during construction and as part of ongoing hygiene promotion activities. The value of using faecal waste which has been allowed to dry out and become safe for use after a year or two, is also being explained to families, to encourage re-use of this waste for fertiliser to increase productivity of home vegetable gardens.

There is no one size fits all solution to this huge challenge. In this particular rural project, access to finance for latrines and safe onsite treatment options make sense. In other contexts, different solutions are needed.

You can read more about how the water and sanitation sector is addressing these challenges at:

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