Today is World Toilet Day. The event was inaugurated at the 2001 World Toilet Summit to raise awareness about the global sanitation crisis. This is an important initiative and it gathers a great deal of public attention. Long a taboo subject, sanitation is now increasingly discussed openly in public, policy and practice. The World Toilet Day initiative is partly responsible for that.
Part of the purpose of World Toilet Day is to raise awareness not just about toilets, but about the range of issues linked to them. As most people involved in the global sanitation debate will tell you, sanitation cannot be reduced to questions of access to toilets alone.
But even while the global sanitation debate strains to emphasize the ‘post-toilet’ (there’s a term you don’t use everyday!) nature of sanitation, there is a tendency for the debate to remain oddly narrow. The debate very often remains within the confines of questions around access to toilets, along with a series of linked questions about how those toilets might best be paid for, maintained, and governed, or around whether ‘users’ should be charged for using public toilets or educated about the importance of toilets and hygiene. These are, of course, vital issues, and issues I myself have researched, but the issues at stake are far wider.
This problem is exacerbated by the constant bombardment – not just on days like World Toilet Day – of numbers, percentages, graphs, charts and statistical maps measuring the extent of ‘inadequate’ toilets based on access or ‘improved’ toilets based on maintenance, which are continually played out globally. I am not saying, of course, that we should not collect data. The data is vital and we all depend on it, even if it is often inconsistent, unreliable, and tends to underestimate the scale of the issue. But part of the effect is to reinforce the isolation of sanitation form other issues intimately connected to it, and to reinstate the narrow link to toilets that so many people working on sanitation believe we need to get beyond.
What we’re left with is a largely liberal discourse on sanitation that obscures seeing what is blandly called ‘inadequate sanitation’ for what it really is: a human catastrophe caused by economic, cultural and political inequality and oppression. In a curious sense, the sanitation debate sanitises sanitation.
The liberal sanitation discourse as it is currently constituted obscures the fast and slow suffering and oppression that emerges from people being denied the ability to safely separate themselves from human waste across urban and rural space. For example, diarrhea, usually the result of food or water contaminated with fecal matter, kills a child every fifteen seconds, and in each decade that passes the number killed exceeds all World War II fatalities (see Rose George’s The Big Necessity). In India, forty-two children die each hour due to inadequate sanitation. Thousands of children will die in this way today, tomorrow, and the day after, and on and on. We hear time and again about harassment and rape of women on their way to using public toilets or open space.
These issues are not so much problems of toilets as problems of political economy and the disinvestment in housing, water, sewers, drainage, subsidized food, and in infrastructure and health provisions for poor areas. They are not so much problems of ‘access’ or ‘maintenance’ as problem of exclusion or exploitation based on class, gender, ethnicity, caste and religion.
The liberal discourse attempts to grapple with the range of issues that produce and emerge from inadequate sanitation. But it struggles to deal with the causes of inequality and oppression that shape sanitation conditions, and it often seems unable (and perhaps in some cases unwilling) to shift sanitation from a toilet-problem to a political economic and societal problem that is differently constituted globally. This at the heart of the writing I’m now doing on sanitation, which is to try to see sanitation differently, to de-sanitise the discourse, and to shift it beyond the confines of a service-delivery or development problem.