Access to toilets is something that people in wealthy countries take for granted, but there are billions of people in the world living without safely managed sanitation.

While countries like India are among the worst affected – in 2014, it led the world in “open defecation” – plenty of places in Europe lack access to basic facilities.

World Toilet Day, marked each year on 19 November, is a reminder that a “toilet is not just a toilet… It’s a life-saver, dignity-protector and opportunity-maker,” says the UN site dedicated to the day.
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What is World Toilet Day?

World Toilet Day was made an official UN day in 2013 in an effort to inspire action to tackle the global sanitation crisis. It aims to help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, which promises safely managed sanitation for all by 2030.

Why is it necessary?

There are 4.2 billion people in the world living without safe sanitation, leading many to practise “open defecation”.

There are an estimated 673 million people who “still defecate in the open, for example in street gutters, behind bushes or into open bodies of water”, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Open defecation is dangerous. “One gram of faeces contains 10m viruses, 1m bacteria and 1,000 parasitic cysts,” says The Economist. “Where open defecation is practised, more children die – according to one estimate, it kills 1.5m children under five every year.”

Inadequate sanitation is thought to result in around 432,000 diarrheal deaths every year, causing diseases like intestinal worms, trachoma and schistosomiasis, UN figures say.

In Europe, more than 31 million people lack access to basic sanitation services, and 314,000 people still practise open defecation, according to WHO figures.

Every day, 14 people in the pan-European region die of diarrhoea because of inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene.

World Toilet Day helps people to “recognise that a toilet is not just a toilet”, says Dr Piroska Ostlin, WHO’s regional director for Europe. “It protects your dignity, your health, and the health of those around you.”

What’s being done?

World Toilet Day this year marks the start of the fifth session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on Water and Health, an intergovernmental meeting supported by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and WHO.

This session will take place in Belgrade, Serbia from 19 to 21 November, and is “a pioneer instrument to support countries’ concrete efforts to realise the basic human rights to safe drinking water and the provision of sanitation for everyone”, says Olga Algayerova, UNECE executive secretary.

But progress towards realising the UN’S SDG 6, of bringing sanitation to all by 2030, is not moving fast enough. The UN says that “achieving universal access to even basic sanitation service by 2030 would require doubling the current annual rate of progress”, and most countries are unlikely to reach full implementation.

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