When abundance is embarrassing: The world water and sanitation crisis

Sharon Fawcett - Getting it Right (Shane Magee/AQ)

I have a First World phobia. It’s not an official fear in a worried, heart-racing, hand-sweating sort of way, but it’s something I think about often—especially when I’m in unfamiliar places. It emerged one summer weekend when I was five years old. My parents decided our family would take up camping.

After purchasing a Coleman stove, canvas tent, and everything else we’d need to “rough it” in the woods, we set off on our adventure. But shortly after making camp, my intense aversion to “smelly toilets” was discovered. Because that meant I refused to use the outhouse, we were back at home before the stars came out and future camping was restricted to our backyard.

Decades later, not much has changed.

My family members roll their eyes at the effort I put into locating clean restrooms when on vacation—carefully coordinating water consumption to avoid finding myself with no other option than a well-used hole in a sloped concrete floor on the top of a mountain in Italy.

But as I reflect on the upcoming World Water Day on March 22, I realize my privilege, with more than a little shame. A July 2010 United Nations General Assembly Resolution recognized “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” Yet according to a UNICEF announcement earlier this month, approximately 40 per cent of the global population—2.5 billion people—don’t have basic sanitation, and 783 million people lack access to safe drinking water.

Each day, women spend 200 million hours collecting water—women in Africa and Asia walk, on average, six kilometres to a water source. More than 3.5 million people die from water-borne illnesses each year, one child every 20 seconds. One might think that water shortages are to blame for lack of access to water, but the United Nations Development Programme identifies poverty, inequality, and ineffective water management policies as the contributing factors. For example, Latin America’s annual per capita water availability (24,000 cubic metres) is more than double that of Europe and Central Asia; yet 50 million people in Latin America lack improved water access and 125 million don’t have access to sanitation.

Disease is not the only consequence of the water and sanitation crisis. In places like Kibera and Kenya, other dangers lurk. Situated in Nairobi, Kibera is one of the largest slums in the world. Just 24 percent of its approximately one million residents have access to a home toilet. The others are forced to use communal latrines and bathrooms.

For women and girls in Kibera, a trip to the toilet means risking a sexually violent attack. Consequently, many women choose to use “flying toilets”—plastic bags which are thrown away when filled with waste.

David Were, a 19-year-old Kibera resident, describes how he is affected by lack of access to sanitation: “In the block where I live,” he says, “there are 30 families and we all share one toilet, which is far away. We are scared to go out at night.”

That’s because Were’s father was attacked en route to the public latrine, resulting in the loss of his sight and partial paralysis.

“My life here isn’t much different from a prisoner in a cell,” he explains as he holds up a white pail. “Just like in a prison, the six of us use this bucket to relieve ourselves at night.”

While parents watch helplessly as 1.5 million children die each year due to water- and sanitation-related diseases, girls are kept out of school because they must spend their days collecting water and people living in slums are often forced to pay five to ten times as much for water as the wealthy in the same city do.

And so I’ve learned to carefully time my consumption of the pristine, filtered liquid I drink, so I can avoid something 2.5 billion people would consider a blessing: a dirty toilet.

That’s a First World embarrassment.