While central bankers and finance ministry officials are scratching their heads over ever-more intricate ways to stimulate the global economy they are overlooking a surprisingly basic policy option to spur growth: giving everybody the chance to take a healthy dump.
More than a billion people worldwide still defecate in the open. Even more do their business in filthy, unsanitary shared facilities. Millions of people die or fall seriously ill from diseases caused by contaminated water. Every minute, one child under five dies needlessly from diarrhea.
Lack of access to clean toilets not only hurt people’s health and dignity, but countries’ economies and companies’ profitability. Poor water and sanitation cost developing countries around US$260 billion a year – 1.5% of their gross domestic product, the United Nations estimates. Undeveloped countries suffer even more.
This concern will be put in the spotlight during World Toilet Day on Saturday. The aim of the event, which is coordinated by the UN, is to raise awareness and inspire action to tackle the global sanitation crisis.
“Toilets have the power to transform economies,” the network of toilet promoters said. “A lack of toilets at work and at home has severe impacts upon businesses through problems in the workforce.”
Inadequate toilet access leads to poor health, absenteeism, attrition, reduced concentration, exhaustion and decreased productivity, it said.
In India, the time spent looking for a toilet or finding somewhere to go in the open costs the economy over US$10 billion every year in lost productivity, representing about 20% of GDP, according to the World Bank. Almost half of the country’s people still defecate in the open.
In Vietnam, profitability was 7.6% higher in factories where workers expressed greater satisfaction with water, air quality, toilets, canteens and health services provided, holding other factors constant, the International Labor Organization said.
Some 30% of rural Chinese do not have access to hygienic toilets, according to the government’s National Health and Family Planning Commission.
“China aims to raise the percentage of rural residents using hygienic toilets to 85 percent by 2020,” Zhang Yong, a senior official with the Disease Control and Prevention department, told state-controlled news bureau Xinhua.
The issue is not isolated to developing countries. In San Francisco alone, more than 7,500 individuals experiencing homelessness lack access to restrooms and basic sanitation.
Globally, more than 200 million tons of human waste – enough to fill 400 oil tankers – go untreated every day
Meeting the UN’s target of 50% of people having access to sanitation and safe water is estimated to reduce sick days by 322 million every year. It would represent an annual health sector saving of US$7 billion, according to the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).
While the work to improve toilet availability continues, the amount of human excrement keeps stacking up. Globally, more than 200 million tons of human waste – enough to fill 400 oil tankers – go untreated every year, according to Online Nursing Programs.
In China’s capital of Beijing, 6,800 tons of human dung is treated each day, according to some estimates. That’s enough to fill almost three Olympic-size swimming pools.
Human waste is a biowaste and a good vector for both viral and bacterial diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that some 2.2 million people – including 800,000 children under five – die every year from diseases caused by contaminated water.
Countless others fall seriously ill, with many suffering long-term health and developmental consequences.
“We must break the taboos and make sanitation for all a global development priority,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on World Toilet Day in 2013. “Sanitation is central to human and environmental health. It is essential for sustainable development, dignity and opportunity.”
Progress has been made, especially in eastern Asia where sanitation coverage has increased from 27% in 1990 to 67% in 2011. Open defecation rates declined globally from 24% in 1990 to 15% in 2011.
However, in sub-Saharan Africa, almost half of the population still uses shared or unimproved facilities, while more than one in four practices open defecation.
“Every dollar invested can bring a fivefold return by keeping people healthy and productive,” Ban said.