Susan Elliott weighs in on the global sanitation crisis

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Today, 4.5 billion people live without a household toilet that safely disposes of their waste. World Toilet Day, which took place on Sunday, November 19, is about inspiring action to tackle the global sanitation crisis.

For billions of people around the world, sanitation systems are either non-existent or ineffective, resulting in the spread of deadly diseases, and seriously undermining progress in health and child survival. Even in wealthy countries, treatment of wastewater can be far from perfect, rendering rivers and coastlines unfit for fishing, swimming, and other activities.

children carrying water in Africa

The following facts from the United Nations, illustrate the gravity of the global sanitation crisis:

  • Around 60% of the global population either have no toilet at home, or one that doesn’t safely manage excreta.
  • 869 million people worldwide practice open defecation and have no toilet facility at all.
  • 1.8 billion people use an unimproved source of drinking water with no protection against contamination from feces.
  • Globally, 80% of wastewater generated flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused.

We had the opportunity to talk about the global sanitation crisis with Water Institute member and Geography and Environmental Management professor, Susan Elliott. Elliott is a medical geographer with particular interests in global environmental health. She is an adjunct professor with the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), a partner in much of the global water and sanitation research that she undertakes. She also runs the research lab, Geographies of Health in Place.

In her recent article in WaterResearch, Elliott discusses the psychosocial outcomes associated with the lack of access to safe water and adequate sanitation for individuals in deprived settings.

“Many of these individuals experience feelings of embarassement when they have visitors and cannot offer them a place to relieve themselves,” said Elliot. “They also experience feelings of failure as a parent or provider to keep their kids healthy, and stigma around women who are trying to have privacy and dignity during menstruation.”

women and children collecting water in Africa

Most of Elliott’s study locations place the burden of water collection on women and girls, and the majority of concerns and psychosocial outcomes are more intense and widespread among women. In fact, a number of studies reported that women experience  sexual assault and other physical abuses during water collection (i.e. on their way to or from water sources, typically located a long way from their home).

“From the studies we’ve done, we know that if women and children – girls in particular – had more time and more money in their day because of access to safe water and sanitation, they would spend the money on food, education and health care – in that order – and spend their saved time on economic activities,” said Elliott.

Although World Toilet Day occurs only once a year, Elliott believes it’s important to keep the global sanitation crisis top of mind, as well as the world water crisis. For those looking for a way to participate in solving this problem, she recommends getting involved in research or, as a volunteer, with H2O4all, an organization committed to finding sustainable, long-term solutions to the water problems around the globe.