We’ve come a long way

Habitat

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Under the normal circumstances of daily living in the developed world, who would want to have a conversation about toilets? No one, right? It’s a no-no topic because we take things for granted: after all, according to the 2014 National Habitat Report on Mauritius, over 99% of Mauritian housing units had access to piped water across both urban and rural areas, and nearly 98% were connected to a solid waste collection service. Given the ‘progress’ we are making in all sectors, if we go by official declarations made in and outside of the National Assembly, I would presume that these figures would probably have shown a further improvement since.

Notwithstanding these statements, we are still left grappling with the loss of nearly 50% of the water from the reservoirs because of leakage from the old distribution pipes, despite the billions spent on replacing them. As we all are aware though, that’s a rather complicated story the details of which are best left to those who know better to throw light on.

Can you imagine not having a toilet? 4.2 billion people live without access to safely managed sanitation. Photo – img2.chinadaily.com.cn


However, water being fundamental to the emergence of life and its sustenance, everything to do with it should be of major interest and concern to all of us. World Toilet Day on 19th November comes to remind us that water and sanitation go together: they are the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6. As we enjoy the availability of water and sanitation facilities, we could perhaps spare a thought for the billions in the world who are still deprived of them in various degrees.

But even we have come a long way from the days of the bucket toilet or the pit latrine to today, with flush toilets inside the house, many with more than one toilet/bathroom, and clean potable water coming out of taps in them, as well as outside for watering of lawns and gardens.

To meet water-related Sustainable Development Goals, countries now need to better understand how they will achieve it, and to build national action plans that will ensure real sustainability for all. Photo – eurekalert.org


My Malaysian friend and classmate from medical college tells me that we must not linger too much on the past but rather look forward and build the future from where we are – meaning that’s what we should let our children do. I do concur, but I also feel that it is our duty to educate them about how we have come to be where we are, the struggles and hardships we have undergone so that they realise that nothing was handed over on a platter. It is not that they have to suffer through a similar trajectory, but it is only this awareness – never mind that they will label us ‘retro’! – that can create in them the sense of value for the material goods and creature comforts that they are privileged to enjoy, which is denied to the billions that are living below the poverty line. This sobering perspective may help them to better appreciate the facilities they avail of, and may spur some of them – at least so I hope – to engage in improving the lives of their fellow human beings.

As the UN reminds us:

Over half of the global population or 4.2 billion people lack safe sanitation.
40% – or three billion people – of the global population live without basic handwashing facilities with soap and water available at home.

Around 297,000 children under five – more than 800 every day – die annually from diarrhoeal diseases due to poor hygiene, poor sanitation or unsafe drinking water.
Globally, 80% of the wastewater generated by society flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused.

By 2050, up to 5.7 billion people could be living in areas where water is scarce for at least one month a year, creating unprecedented competition for water.

In fact, it has even been said that ‘water wars’ will be the next big wars of the 21st century – but that was before Covid-19. However, whereas the latest developments on the vaccine front have kindled hope that the pandemic will in a foreseeable future be brought under control – unfortunately there’s no equivalent of a vaccine to ameliorate in a short term the situation of those billions without safe sanitation.

World Toilet Day celebrates toilets and raises awareness of the 4.2 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation, taking action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030,the theme this year underlining the importance of ‘Sustainable sanitation and climate change’.

Indeed, ‘climate change is accelerating. Flood, drought, and rising sea levels are threatening sanitation systems – from toilets to septic tanks to treatment plants. Floodwater can contaminate wells used for drinking water or flooding might damage toilets and spread human waste into communities and food crops, causing deadly and chronic diseases’. The horrifying visuals of the ‘toxic soup’ flooding habitations in the wake of devastating cyclones in the Philippines, for example, come to my mind. We more fortunate here that we don’t have to face such catastrophic scenarios, though this in no way mitigates the difficulties that are faced when there are inundations in several areas in the island, and which must be addressed with the degree of seriousness and urgency that is required.

But we will all agree that ‘everyone must have sustainable sanitation, alongside clean water and hand washing facilities, to help protect and maintain our health security and stop the spread of deadly infectious diseases’.

Many of us have come a long way – but there are many more in the world that still have a longer way to go.


* Published in print edition on 20 November 2020

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