According to the World Health Organization, 4.5 billion people around the world do not have access to safe sanitation. Mostly in rural areas, untreated human feces on a large scale directly impact living conditions contaminating water and soil. With no access to safe disposal or off-site treatment capabilities, millions are turning our environment into an open sewer. In order to raise awareness for global sanitation crisis, World Toilet Day every 19 of November reminds us of Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6), which is to ensure availability and sustainable management of sanitation and water for all by 2030.
The 2018 theme for World Toilet Day is on the development of nature-based solutions to advance sustainable practices leading to tackle the global sanitation crisis. Source water protection from contamination is critical. Collection and sustainable treatment of wastewater for safe reuse is a key step forward to sustainability. Wastewater is highly underutilized. It can serve as an excellent source of energy, nutrients and even water if treated under right conditions. Constructed and natural wetlands are engineered to utilize soil and vegetation to treat wastewater. They comprise of making use of organisms for treatment. Soil infiltration facilities also serve as sustainable solutions.
Effective sanitation, hygiene and safe water are at the core of human health. Providing a universal access to them enables healthier, equitable societies with a minimum quality of life. Yet these needs are not met in many parts of the world and the most basic life standards feel like a privilege of rich, urban life.
Although access to basic drinking water and sanitation services has reached billions of people since the year 2000, a large number still lack soap-and-water handwashing which leads to effective disease reduction. According to the SDG 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation, in least developed countries, only a 27% had access to hand-washing facilities with a higher coverage in urban areas (39%). This lack of infrastructure enormously proliferates diseases and puts public health at risk, especially children. The death of 361,000 children under the age of five is associated with diarrhoea every year. The spread of other diseases such as typhoid, dysentery and cholera are also related to water contamination and poor sanitation practices.
Large-scale exposure to human faeces has a destructive effect on public health and living conditions, as well as in economic productivity all over the world. The same report states that the majority who practice open defecation lived in just two regions with 558 million in Central Asia and Southern Asia and 220 million in sub-Saharan Africa and population growth in these areas also results in an increase in this practice and its effects. At the same time, those societies depend heavily on natural resources and agriculture. Open defecation contaminates rivers or fresh water bodies and sustain microbes. This not only supports waterborne diseases, but the build-up of microbes can also impact agricultural and marine life sustainability.
Grand Challenges Canada, an initiative funded by the Canadian government, supports the United Nations SDGs enabling bold ideas with big impact. To date it has invested 10.7 million CAD for innovations and enterprises related to sanitation, thus improving global health. The Ugandan Waste to Wealth initiative funded by Grand Challenges Canada demonstrates a collective effort towards realizing a sustainable sanitation. It was supported in partnership with the local Ugandan government as well as non-governmental organizations. A self-sufficient technology taught to manage human waste, turn it into viable products, and ultimately, profits which are used to provide sanitation and improve environmental and economic well-being. The technology proven to be successful in other developing countries. It involved bacteria caused breakdown of organic material and its conversion into plant fertilizers or biogas, useful for cooking and lighting. This initiative is an inspiring sustainable solution model working in harmony with the ecosystem, and with attractive economic benefits. Furthermore, it also highlights on how collective international effort can make a difference.
In the City of Toronto, the landscape is quite different. Open defecation may not be the main problem but the misusage of the sanitation infrastructure puts effective water treatment at risk. Stringent laws are in place by the city’s Sewers By-law on what can be discharged into the sewers system and natural water resources. The residents and businesses are provided with guidelines from Toronto Water on upholding the By-law. Regular monitoring including sampling, testing and inspection are carried to ensure compliance. During heavy rainfall, there are possibilities of combined sewer overflows, in some of the city’s older areas. These discharges contain heavy metals, pesticides, harmful bacteria, etc. which can degrade the quality of Toronto’s waterways. Thus the city is developing an effective multi-billion-dollar infrastructure plan over the years to reduce this combined sewers impact on water quality, thus maintaining the water resources to be safe.
Going one step further, the City of Toronto addresses other needs, offering a variety of health programs which are available for the homeless or under-housed individuals. Some of the new initiatives seen in the city include a hygiene product dispenser in neighbourhoods for homeless women, or the launch of mobile shower for the homeless community, which help improve their quality of living and health.
On the tech front, a team of engineers from the University of Toronto's Centre of Global Engineering have been working on reinventing hygienic toilets for developing nations. They are developing economically viable toilets, which can operate without connections to water, sewer or electrical lines. This sustainable solution can reduce adverse health and environmental risks.
Developing smart, sustainable solutions which strengthen regional and international integration will be indispensable in the near future to regulate sanitation systems and improve the availability of basic needs for all. On this note, this world toilet day, let us to be reminded of the commitment to leave no one behind. Ensuring universal access to the most disadvantaged communities, is a responsibility of one and all towards equality.