As my mother can attest, potty training isn’t easy. Even when I had mastered getting onto the toilet with a step stool, my aim was imperfect. Eventually I got the hang of it. Many people never get the chance.
Today is World Toilet Day–a good reminder that about 4.5 billion people don’t have access to a safe toilet, and nearly 1 billion defecate in the open for lack of a clean and safe alternative, according to the UN. Access to sanitation can be the difference between life and death: about 88 percent of deaths due to diarrheal illness worldwide are attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. Stanford’s Program on Water, Health & Development works to develop and test products and ideas to meet the sanitation challenge.
We caught up with Sebastien Tilmans Director of Stanford’s William and Cloy Codiga Resource Recovery Center, to discuss sanitation. Tilmans is a former Stanford civil and environmental engineering graduate student; and Water, Health & Development Program-affiliated researcher who co-founded an initiative to bring portable, affordable dry household toilets to urban slums worldwide.
In your toilet-related work, what has been the biggest takeaway and / or surprise for you?
The public health community spends a great deal of resources trying to educate people about waterborne illnesses as a way to motivate investment in toilets, but that’s not why people build or buy toilets. People buy toilets because they are convenient, clean, private and modern. Toilets are a status symbol, and most people don’t realize that.
What are some of the most pressing challenges to providing toilets?
The most pressing challenge is not in providing toilets, but in providing the services around the toilet: the cleaning, waste removal and management, and maintenance that ensure that a toilet will function properly over time. Different actors, including the toilet owner, can provide different parts of this service package, but if all those elements aren’t present, the toilet itself is probably not of much use.
What motivates your interest/work related to toilets?
The world faces harrowing challenges in social justice, public health, resource scarcity and environmental degradation. By delivering effective sanitation to people, I can help address challenges in all those domains at once.
What is the significance of World Toilet Day? Does it matter? Should we rethink it in some way?
World Toilet Day has critical significance because it captures people’s attention and gets them talking about a taboo. It’s easier to use the toilet as a focal point to draw attention to the sanitation crisis than to discuss “sanitation” or other less tangible terms. It’s just important for us to use that day to emphasize the message that toilets are the beginning, not the end, of delivering dignified and sustainable sanitation to people.