These days, it seems like there’s a dedicated “day” for pretty much everything – to raise awareness for important issues, to give to local charities, or to celebrate important people in our lives. I don’t ultimately think it’s a bad thing, as it causes us to pause and reflect on important moments and issues. One of these “days” that has gained momentum and attention in recent years that I’m particularly passionate about – is today, World Toilet Day.
A day dedicated to toilets may seem a little silly at first glance – it’s a big slab of porcelain in a room in our house that we generally take for granted. It’s easy to forget that they were an important innovation that dramatically improved our quality of life. In fact, readers of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) chose the introduction of clean water and sewage disposal—“the sanitary revolution”—as the most important medical milestone since 1840, when the BMJ was first published.
But it’s an innovation that is not taken for granted by the more than 2.5 billion people worldwide that are still living without access to improved sanitation. It is not taken for granted by the young women who face the choice of defecating out in the open or risking rape and assault to walk to the nearest public toilet. Nor is it taken for granted by those who are subject to cholera, diarrhea and a whole host of other health issues that are caused by overrun sewers and as the result of so-called “flying toilets.” Makes you think a little more carefully about that slab of porcelain in your house – or even public rest stops that we have to duck into during road trips, doesn’t it?
Addressing the sanitation crisis has the potential to not only improve quality of life for nearly 40% of the world’s population, but to have a tremendous positive impact on a whole host of other issues – from global health, to safety for women and girls. Over the years, the world water crisis has deservedly gained great global attention – but only recently has the issue of sanitation has really come to the forefront, with the UN officially recognizing World Toilet Day in 2013 (after several years of “unofficial” World Toilet Days in years prior).
Some of the most interesting and exciting innovations in global development are happening in the sanitation space – from organizations like Water for People focused on transparency in bringing access to clean water and improved sanitation to everyone, forever; to major international organizations like the IRC International Water & Sanitation Centre and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor; or initiatives like the Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.” Not to mention the growing number of companies and nonprofits like re.source, SOIL, Humanure Power, Clean Team, Toilet Hackers and others that are delivering major innovations in both design and approach for deploying toilets in both urban and rural settings.
I’m particularly proud to serve on the board of one of these innovative organizations – Sanergy – which is focused on providing access to affordable, hygenic sanitation in urban informal settlements. To date, Sanergy has launched more than 575 of its Fresh Life Toilets in Nairobi, Kenya, where more than eight million people lack access to clean water. The organization doesn’t just stop at building and franchising toilets that offer a clean, dignified place for residents to use the bathroom (and a steady income for the Fresh Life Operators who purchase and manage the toilets) – Sanergy also safely collects and transports the waste from Fresh Life toilets, and is converting it into useful byproducts like organic fertilizer. The importance of waste removal and conversion can’t be understated in communities where a sewer system typically doesn’t exist – or is rarely working properly if it does.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Sanergy and see first-hand the impact of their work in Nairobi twice over the last two years, most recently just two weeks ago. It has been beyond inspiring to hear directly from the Fresh Life Operators on how their lives, and the areas around them, have been transformed by the use of the Fresh Life Toilet, is an understatement. It is also powerful to witness Sanergy’s efforts to truly ensure that everyone in the community has access to a clean, dignified sanitation facility by working not just in commercial areas, but with schools and in residential areas to install the Fresh Life Toilets (you can read more about their impact in schools here and here).
I’d be selling Sanergy short, however, if I only talked about their groundbreaking work in addressing the sanitation crisis in urban settings. It’s impossible not to notice the culture of the organization they’re building – as one of Kenya’s fastest growing social enterprises, Sanergy has a team of more than 190 young, energetic, talented individuals on a mission to change the world and global health as we know it. The impact of the more than 600 jobs they’ve collectively created – including those within the community they’re serving – is a critical part of their work.
So today, on this World Toilet Day, I’m pausing to reflect on one of our most unsung, and often taken-for-granted innovations – and celebrating the work of amazing organizations who are working towards a healthier future, where everyone can take their toilet for granted, forever.
To learn more about World Toilet Day efforts led by UN Water, click here.