Thursday, November 19, 2020, was World Toilet Day, a day set aside by the UN to celebrate toilets and create the needed awareness of billions of people who still do not have access to this important but basic infrastructure.
World Toilet Day exists to inform, engage and sensitise people all over the world to take action towards stopping open defecation and ensuring access to improved and sustainable toilet facilities.
Thinking about those who still lack access to toilets in Ghana, I recount with nostalgia my childhood experiences with toilets.
As a young boy growing up in various police barracks in some parts of the country in the 1970s, I was exposed to the respect the Police had for toilets and this engraved on my mind a certain unique attitude and character on issues of toilet later in my adult life.
In a typical police barracks at that time, the architecture outlay was that every accommodation unit had its own toilet some 50 metres away, and it was a ‘taboo’ for a police officer to keep his or her toilet dirty.
This could easily attract a ‘service drill’ under the scorching tropical sun and in the glaring presence of your family. This was the highest level of disgrace and demeaning experience an officer would ever dream of.
I remember being once reprimanded by my mother for not closing the toilet door after using it.
To the Police, family toilets and general cleanliness matter. In sum, the then police administration made provision for robust toilet facilities for all its officers, inspected these facilities regularly, ‘Magagias’ educated wives of officers to maintain and clean them always and when necessary, punished officers who failed in their sacred duty of keeping toilets clean.
Here we had the interplay of the entire toilet system made up of infrastructure provision, maintenance, education and enforcement. Sadly, I doubt if the toilet story at all Police Barracks is still the same.
Whichever angle you look at it, “Toilets Matter and Lives of Ghanaians Matter.” In fact, access to the toilet is a human right issue.
I was really amused and gingered up, when on July 28, 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognised the human right to water and sanitation.
The UN acknowledged that sanitation was essential to the realisation of all human rights.
The Resolution called upon the Member States and international organisations to provide financial resources, help capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable sanitation for all.
As a country how do we ensure that toilets become accessible to all?
The SDG 6 and other related guidelines have given us some indications as to how to make sanitation for all a reality.
One of the critical tools of achieving set goals is to keep reminding ourselves of the existence of such goals and how close or far we are from the goal.
World Toilet Day
Globally, one of the triggers and reminders of our “Toilet for All” vows is the commemoration of the annual World Toilet Day.
Ghana, as a dedicated UN member state, has commemorated the day since its inception in 2001, even before the UN General Assembly declared World Toilet Day an official UN day in 2012.
The various commemoration themes have been chosen for the day to highlight the global and local challenges within the sanitation space.
Backtrack, these are some of past themes: 2012 – “I Give a Shit, do you?”, 2013 – “Tourism and Water”, 2014 – “Equity and Dignity” 2015 – “Toilets and Nutrition”, 2017 – “Wastewater”, 2016 – “Toilets and Jobs”, 2018 – “When Nature Calls” and 2019 - “Leaving no one behind.”
Analysing the past themes points to the importance of toilets in the lives of people and the general socio-economic development of a country.
Toilets are so important that they impact directly on Tourism, Health, Education, Environment, Economy, Job creation and is key in the attainment of all other SDGs.
This year the global theme chosen for the commemoration of World Toilet Day was “Sustainable Sanitation and Climate Change.”
The nexus between sustainable sanitation and climate change is not far-fetched.
Whether we believe it or not the issue of climate change is already here with us and its consequences abound in our everyday lives.
Toilets and Climate Change
We, therefore, need to drum home the need to see toilets as cause and effect of climate change. Building toilets with climate change in mind is the most sustainable approach for the safe management of faecal matter.
The discussion of climate change within the context of toilets is more relevant than ever, as the available current statistics on sanitation and hygiene are alarming and not in our favour at all.
According to the latest available data from WHO, UNICEF, UNESCO, UNDP and the World Bank, more than half of the global population lack safe toilets.
Around 297,000 children under five die annually from diarrhoeal diseases due to poor hygiene, poor sanitation or unsafe drinking water. These are not too different from our in-country statistics.
According to the Ghana Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2017/18 (MICS 2017/19), Only one in every five households (21 per cent) in Ghana have an improved toilet facility.
About 22 per cent still practice open defecation. Close to eight in every 10 households (80 per cent) had E-coli (faecal matter) in their drinking water while close to half of our water sources are contaminated with faeces.
The effects of climate change threaten water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure directly, especially when floodwater contaminates wells and other such sources meant for drinking or when flooding damages toilets and expose faeces into the environment, and food crops.
These scenarios are becoming more frequent as climate change worsens. Exposure of faecal matter into people’s living environments causes deadly and chronic diseases including a number of Neglected Tropical Diseases.
Without safely managed, sustainable toilets, people often have no choice but to use unreliable, inadequate toilets or practice open defecation.
Even where toilets exist, overflows and leaks from pipes and septic systems, and dumping or improper treatment can mean untreated human waste going into the environment and spreading diseases like cholera and intestinal worms.
Sustainable sanitation systems, and knowledge to practice good hygiene, are a strong barrier against COVID-19 and other disease outbreaks.
Improving access to safe toilets and handwashing facilities in healthcare facilities reduces infection and mortality rates, particularly in maternal and child health.
Ghana adopted a local theme for this year’s World Toilet Day commemoration and that is “Household Toilets for All, Creating Zero Barriers.”
This theme is very relevant in addressing our local sanitation challenges, which may be more complex than most countries around the world.
There are a number of barriers that militate against the average Ghanaian gaining access to this important human need called a toilet.
These barriers could be poor coordination, high cost of toilet facilities, land tenure issues, attitudes and beliefs, lack of information, inadequate financial support mechanism, non-availability of appropriate technologies and weak enforcement regime among others.
These barriers to increasing access to toilets should be surmounted if we want to get back on track to achieve our SDG goals as a country.
Sanitation cannot wait, otherwise, it would drag the rate of progress for our national socio-economic development.
The Writer is a Fellow of the West African Postgraduate College of Environmental Health (WAPCEH).