‘Where’s the toilet?’ must be one of the most useful – and used – foreign language sentences for travellers abroad. Google Translate helpfully provides those – or similar – words in Arabic, Hausa, Hindi, Japanese, Thai and Zulu:
‘ayn almarhad? Ina gidan bayan gida? shauchaalay kahaan hai? Toire wa dokodesu ka? H̄̂xngn̂ả xyū̀ thī̀h̄ịn? iphi indlu yangasese?
Visitors to English-speaking countries are spoilt for choice with alternatives and euphemisms, from the WC to the Ladies, Gents, lavatory, loo, bathroom, ‘can’, ‘comfort station’, ‘restroom’, ‘powder room’ and so on. In the UK, one of the most baffling, particularly as it costs at least 30p, is ‘to spend a penny’, which harks back to coin-operated doors on a ‘public convenience’ (yet another euphemism).
As the 19 November approaches, though, that everyday question ‘Where is the toilet?’ assumes a different emphasis. Yes, where is the toilet?
Today, 4.5 billion people live without a household toilet that safely disposes of their waste. (UN Water website)
‘Perhaps you’re lucky enough to live in a country where you don’t have to think about it…’ continues the UN Water website, outlining the 4-step journey of containment, transport, treatment and disposal or re-use of waste.
Since 2013 the United Nations has designated 19 November as World Toilet Day, ‘to inspire action to tackle the global sanitation crisis’. Sanitation is seen as ‘central to eradicating extreme poverty’.
Sustainable Development Goal 6, out of 17, set in 2015, is ‘to ensure access to water and sanitation for all’. It ties in with aims to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater and increase recycling and safe reuse, and for everyone to have ‘access to a safely-managed household toilet by 2030’.
With wastewater the theme for 2017, building toilets, along with the safe disposal of wastewater and sewage are some of the practical issues, which face different countries in meeting the SDG challenges by 2030.
SOAS Professor Philippe Cullet in an article in The Conversation (9 October 2017), outlines the diverse issues that India, for one, faces in its mission, launched in 2013, to achieve sanitation for all. He writes:
In a context where groundwater is the source of drinking water for around 80% of the population in India, the building of so many new toilets needs to be carefully planned
He points out how, along with numerous practical challenges, are other less tangible ones, including how to address entrenched views and practices.
Sanitation has move from being a ‘dirty’ topic to one that policymakers, civil society actors and politicians are all keen to engage with to make a difference in the world. The world has also moved from seeing sanitation as something that is subsidiary to drinking water (with which it has been clubbed for many years) to understanding sanitation as a separate topic that needs to be addressed on its own. While it has become much easier to talk about sanitation, it is an issue that requires a lot more attention in years to come because taboos surrounding ‘shit’ still need to be broken and because new answers need to be found to addressing human excreta, for instance, so that much less sewage is produced and so that we collectively make better use of common resources such as water.
On World Toilet Day – 19 November, a ‘can-do’ attitude assumes essential significance. Amina J Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations is quoted on the UN’s website:
We’ve got the tools, let’s make it happen.
Professor Philippe Cullet
- ‘India’s ambitious plans to achieve sanitation for all must look beyond building individual toilets’, The Conversation, 9 October 2017.
- Water Law, Poverty, and Development – Water Sector Reforms in India (Oxford University Press, 2009)
- SOAS Staff
is convenor for: