Toilets for WASH

11.18.2015

by Lyra Cooper

One out of every fourth person in the world lacks access to a clean water source.[1] In an era of electric cars and flying drones, the fact that 25% of our world’s population does not have a source of clean drinking water is astounding.

Largely due to the lack of infrastructure and education around sanitation, communities around the world face urgent threats to their local environment and public health. According to the UN, “2.4 billion people do not have adequate sanitation,”[2] and according to Lazette Bergers, Senior Water and Sanitation Adviser at UNICEF NY, “1 billion people still practice open defecation.” This global sanitation problem conjures up an alarming image.

In a meeting at the UN on November 7th regarding water and sanitation issues globally, Ms. Bergers explained that because of persistent inequalities, women and girls, in particular, face tremendous hardship in lieu of such immediate and tangible challenges to their daily lives. Women and girls pay the highest price for poor WASH (Water and Sanitation for Health) because of a lack of separate and safe facilities, such as bathrooms in schools, workplaces, and in homes. Due to this absence, a third of women around the world face the threat of violence and humiliation, and many girls are deprived of their education, compromising their future.

So, how do we alleviate these challenges?

At the Water and Sanitation meeting, panelists highlighted the work of several organizations tackling these issues. For example, Dr. Deborah Walters, a neuroscientist from Rotary International, worked with a small community in Latin America to build a safe gravitational water system. Dr. Walters helped fund the project, but noted that the community took the initiative in devising their own solution. She said, “Community leadership is essential. We cannot go in saying we have all of the answers.” Representing the perspective of community members where such projects take place, Ms. Zena Grimes from ATD Fourth World explained, “We have to demand that our poverty is not used to manipulate us. We are not only people to give charity to, but people [whose] opinions must be sought.” Many experts in international development claim that an issue with aid and relief in developing nations is the assumed authoritative knowledge of the problems at hand by outside actors, sweeping in to fix an issue and then leaving the community to fend for itself. Local actors, and in particular, women, need to be a core part of improving the sanitation of their own communities to ensure the implementation of sustainable solutions, which aligns perfectly with VGIF’s funding.

The reason I was drawn to VGIF from the sea of nonprofits here in New York is because of their focus on empowering women. VGIF helps local women implement their own sustainable solutions to the issues facing their communities, wisely acknowledging that locals on the ground have the greatest understanding of how to tackle, for example, sanitation challenges in their villages and cities. For example, VGIF is currently funding a grantee in Nanyeni, Kenya, The Gleamer, whose project, Health and Water Sanitation and Hygiene for Vulnerable Women and Children, is increasing women’s and girls’ access to clean water, health services, and sanitation facilities via education and the construction of bore holes. The project is expected to provide access to safe water for 1,500 women and 3,000 school children - an incredible achievement for a yearlong project.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 6, to ensure access to water and sanitation for all, is a laudable goal, but requires huge finances, commitment, accountability and enforcement of regulations. While the UN discusses long-term goals from the confines of their comfortable chairs and plentiful amenities, local actors like VGIF’s grantees are actually creating and implementing solutions on the ground but continue to struggle to access funding and other resources. While the UN, governments, and national networks are critical to the work being done to provide WASH for our global population, we need more. We need local action; we need mobilization among the grassroots; we need innovation.

In honor of World Toilet Day 2015, join me in taking a few moments to learn more about the important projects being implemented in local communities around the world. Who knew toilets could be so incredible?

[1] H.E. Mr. Francois Delattre, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations, “International Day for the Eradication of Poverty,” 16 October 2015.
[2] http://www.un.org/en/events/toiletday/