November 19 is a day for those of us with access to toilets to feel humbled and grateful for the seat that saves lives. World Toilet Day might not make you want to rally in the streets, but it should make you thank the porcelain gods that you don’t have to poop in the streets. Not everyone is so fortunate—673 million people worldwide still practice open defecation.
The theme of World Toilet Day this year is “Leaving no one behind,” and I will admit to juvenile thoughts about the inclusion of the word “behind” in a day of action about people’s rear ends.
But seriously. You may be wondering what toilets have to do with population growth, and I’ll tell you (no pun intended by labeling them #1 and #2).
- On the fertility side, high population growth makes it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for governments to expand infrastructure quickly enough to meet growing sanitation demands. For example, according to UNICEF and WHO, between 2000 and 2017, 39 countries recorded increases in the numbers of people practicing open defecation, totaling 49 million additional people. “Most of these countries were in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has experienced rapid population growth since 2000.”
- On the mortality side, diarrhea caused by inadequate sanitation kills 432,000 people every year—297,000 of them children under five. Given the fact that at least 2 billion people’s drinking water is contaminated with feces, it’s a wonder that the mortality figure isn’t higher.
The numbers are overwhelming: More than half the global population—4.2 billion people— don’t have safely managed sanitation.
United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. Of the eight specific targets under SDG 6, one of them (6.2) is specific to toilets: “By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.”
Women and girls require special attention because they are disproportionately at risk of sexual and physical violence when they go alone to relieve themselves in the bush, especially when they do so under cover of darkness. There’s also the matter of menstruation, which causes girls to miss classes when there are no private facilities with proper handwashing stations at their schools, perpetuating the educational divide between boys and girls in low-income countries.
The sanitation situation in much of the developing world requires improvements in infrastructure—especially in rural areas—nobody is arguing against that. But it would also benefit from slower population growth, reducing the speed at which the toilet target is moving.
Except where noted, all statistics from 2019 World Toilet Day Fact Sheet (PDF): “This Is Not Just a Toilet”