Friday, November 28, 2008

Sit or Get off the Pot: The Toilet as a Human Right

I was talking with a friend the other night and she told me she thought that a key issue for world peace in the near future would be food security and access to clean water. I said that I thought she was right, but that after reading this article, I also think that we also need to consider where all that food and water will eventually end up. Maybe we need to think of the toilet as a human right.

Many years ago, on my first trip to Europe, I remember my friend Phillip and I wandering through a train station in Florence, looking for a bathroom. We found the men's room and he went in. A few minutes later he returned with a puzzled look on his face. He said that there was no toilets or urinals in the bathroom. Just a hole in the floor. We both knew about squat toilets in Asia (there are cultural differences, even in defecating). But we were in the middle of Italy!

We were lucky to find public toilets, actually. Cities in the developed world are decreasing the number of public facilities. In the last eight years, the number of public toilets in London dropped over 40%. Why worry about the lack of toilets? One suggestion: A Japanese national disaster prevention panel found in a recent study that:

"nearly a million people would be unable to find a toilet if a magnitude 7.3-quake struck Tokyo at noon on a workday, sending 12 million people pouring out of office buildings and creating a potential hygiene and sanitation nightmare of biblical proportions."

In the developing world, access to some kind of toilet is rare. Open defecation leads to water pollution and the transmission of disease. In terms of preventing death in the developing world, nothing beats the toilet as a tool:

"Improved sanitation means more jobs, more economic growth, and less poverty. According to a recent WHO study, every dollar spent improving sanitation generates an average economic benefit of $9. The “sanitary revolution” — that is, the introduction of clean water and sewage disposal — has been the greatest medical advance of the last century and a half, according to a poll by the British Medical Journal. Though vaccinations certainly helped curb the spread of disease, they didn’t altogether stop it as much as the toilet did. A simple toilet is one of the cheapest medicines, adding decades to the human lifespan — when it’s used."

Lest you think that the idea of a toilet as a human right is a joke, consider this testimony from an Iraqi prisoner in Fallujah. It seems to make a case for the idea that being denied a toilet is a human rights violation. Abbas Abid claims he was tortured by American forces. Some of the methods included preventing him from urinating or defecating. Sometimes he was put into a room with many other men who had no access to a toilet. Instead, they were all given plastic bags that had to be stored in the cell with them and these bags were sometimes knocked over and spilled throughout the cell.

Such practices make a hole in the ground in Florence sound like heaven.

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At 11:21 AM , Anonymous Lani said...

Did the Japanese disaster prevention panel really say "of biblical proportions"? That sounds really odd to me.

At 7:04 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Infrastructure and logistics policy are the life-stuff of empires.
If not for the betterment of the citizenry, how could the wealth or greatness of a nation be measured?

At 7:44 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Lani: Well, you're right. Its from a summary of the report...

Anon@7:04: I agree.


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