human rights news & views

Indivisibility in action: toilets for education

The right to water, the right to health, the right to life, the right to education. They all tie in to something as simple and unmentionable as sanitation. Yes, toilets. The most basic will do, plus some way to wash your hands.

One kind that is inadequate is the ‘flying toilet’ found in unsewered shantytowns. It involves crapping in a plastic bag and flinging the bag as far away from your home as you can. And you’d better duck in case a neighbour returns the favour.

2.6 billion of your fellow humans lack access to basic sanitation. That’s 40% of the world’s population, most of them in rural areas.

Babies and children are in particular danger from poor sanitation. 5,200 children under five will die today of diarrhoea. 88% of those deaths are caused by inadequate water and sanitation.

Pneumonia — an even bigger killer of young children than diarrhoea — can be avoided by simple hand-washing with soap. Poor water and sanitation can also cause blindness, by aiding the spread of the contagious eye disease trachoma.

“Clean water and sanitation are vital prerequisites for improved nutrition, reductions in child and maternal mortality and the fight against disease,” says UNICEF in a report out last week.

And the right to education? Good water supplies at school can attract students in poor areas. Conversely, where schools have only one latrine, girls frequently drop out. Moreso when they reach puberty. Girls may be kept out of school by the need to fetch and carry water for their family. Where water supplies are privatised, scarce funds needed for school fees may be diverted to pay for water.

The 7th of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) aims to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. Between 1990 and 2004, global coverage of safe drinking water rose from 78% to 83%. Access to basic sanitation — much rarer — has increased from 49% to 59% in the same period. UNICEF says we are on track to meet the drinking water MDG, but will miss the goal for sanitation, for want of ‘resources and resolve’.

UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, says we still have time to reach the Millennium Development Goals, "but only if we break with business as usual."

"Success will require sustained action across the entire decade between now and the deadline . . . And we must more than double global development assistance over the next few years."


  1. Julie
    24 October 2006 | 9:27 pm

    Thanks for this informative post Olivia.

  2. 24 October 2006 | 9:47 pm

    I would encourage readers to consider supporting UNICEF and its rights-based approach to meeting the sanitation and other needs of children. Australians can become a Global Parent, a programme of regular giving superior to individual child sponsorship. I joined when I became a (real) parent, in an effort not to become too wrapped up in my own children. I find it a healthy reminder of other parents and children worldwide.

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