The theme for World Toilet Day 2020, ´sustainable sanitation and climate change’, focuses our attention on the links between access to sanitation, climate change and sustainability. Around 4.2 billion people currently lack access to safely managed sanitation, 1.8 billion use contaminated water, and 892 million currently practice open defecation. Pathogens from human faeces contribute to widespread diarrheal diseases that hit children the hardest, killing around 525 000 children every year. The spread of pathogens like rotavirus can be greatly reduced by improved Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and could prevent the deaths of around 300,000 children aged under 5 every year. Safe and sustainable WASH is also critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. This article outlines three key connections between access to sanitation, economic sustainability and the climate, which garner little attention within a global sanitation crisis that already flies under the radar.
Increased storms, flooding, landslides, droughts and wildfires linked to extreme weather and climate change have devastating effects on human habitation. As UNICEF (2016) highlight, the ´effects of climate change are first felt through water: through droughts, floods and storms’. Changes to the water table, heavy rains and overflow from sewer systems and latrines make it extremely difficult to maintain clean, safe and hygienic toilets and waste removal systems in areas already prone to flooding. Storms can devastate infrastructure and flooding can spread contaminated water and pathogens from sewers, mixing with agricultural and industrial waste, which can remain as toxic standing water for some time. Increased risk of sickness from contaminated water is exacerbated by extreme weather events and natural disasters, which have tripled over the past thirty years.
When considering the different components of the sanitation value chain, the World Toilet Day 2020 highlights how ´flooding, drought and rising sea levels can damage any part of a sanitation system – toilets, pipes, tanks and treatment plants´. The many different formal and informal service providers involved in the construction, delivery, management, and cleaning of toilets, as well as the removal and renewal of human waste, can all be impacted, meaning that ‘[b]reakdowns or barriers at any point within the system can lead to devastating impacts on people’s lives and rights’ (Human Rights Watch 2017). The Shit Flow Diagram (SFD) example below highlights the different stages of a sanitation network.
Extreme weather can impact all of these phases of sanitation systems. For example, damaged roads can prevent the removal and cleaning of septic tanks. Also, as the WHO (2019) points out, flooding due to rising sea-levels results in damage to underground sanitation infrastructure and wastewater treatment works, which are often situated in costal locations. Droughts and water scarcity on the other hand mean that for water-dependant sanitation systems, it is not possible to flush sewage systems adequately. Deficiencies in water impact washing, personal hygiene, menstrual hygiene management, and also increase the risks of dehydration and malnutrition. In addition to 5 litres of drinking water, cooking, toilet use, hand washing require a minimum of 20 litres of water per person, per day.
Climate-related migration is expected to force over a billion people to move above the equator by 2050, as ea-levels are projected to rise by around 50cm. In thirty years from now, the number of people at risk of floods globally is projected to be 1.6 billion. Added to this, 1.9 billion people currently live in water-scarce areas, and by 2050, this number is expected to increase to between 2.7 and 3.2 billion. That is without including those who lose their homes due to extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornados, and wildfires every year. A recent article in Truthout highlights that the 100+ million people displaced by war, violence, persecution, or other forms of public disorder over the past decade will soon be ´dwarfed by people displaced by another signature story of our time: climate change.´Climate refugees could outweigh those displaced by conflict by 900% by 2050. The situation is made worse when you consider that the number of refugees able to return home has also decreased dramatically, with 77% of refugees now remaining in long-term displacement situations. Where will these millions of people go? Where would you go?
Refugee camps across the world already struggle to help meet the sanitation and hygiene needs of a large, diverse and often traumatised population. Effective systems have been developed to plan and manage sanitation infrastructure in refugee camps. Places like Cox’s Bazaar in Southern Bangladesh, with a population of over a million refugees, are effectively semi-permanent settlements, already stretched beyond capacity. Refugee camps were intended to be temporary solutions offering humanitarian relief. However, just look to Cooper’s Camp in West Bengal, India, operational since 1947. Consider also that Bangladesh is particularly susceptible to rising sea levels. In addition to an annual monsoon season that can last up to four months, most of Bangladesh is less than five metres above sea level and 28% of the population lives on the coast. Alongside these predictions of growing numbers of climate refugees, what will the population of camps like Cox’s Bazaar be in 2050? How will their water and sanitation needs be met?
Greening the brown
The sustainable sanitation focus of World Toilet Day 2020 highlights the importance of sustainable sanitation technology, such as low-cost pit latrines and septic tanks, sustainable business models, such as toilet cooperatives, and renewable energy generated from the by-products of human waste. These initiatives have the potential to help reduce the global carbon footprint, providing sustainable livelihoods and generating affordable and efficient renewable resources in the form of compost, fuel and biogas. Will the benefits of a new, sustainable sanitation economy result in a rising tide that lifts all septic tanks? Or will revenue and jobs simply trickle down the pan?
Sanergy is a social enterprise that markets non-sewered public toilets to entrepreneurs in Nairobi and Kampala ‘through the collection of user fees and the sale of end products made from human waste´ (O’Keefe et al., 2015: 422). Entrepreneurs buy toilet blocks with coding permits and waste collection included in the fee. Sanergy then sells the organic fertiliser made from human waste. The model has proven successful in peri-urban areas without municipal sanitation and water connections, and in Mukuru, near Nairobi in Kenya, their network of toilets serves around 200,000 people and, according to their website, costs five times less than piped city services.
A sanitation model that has succeeded on a large scale is Sulabh International of India. Sulabh has built around 1.5m household toilets and over 9000 public toilets since 1968. They generate revenue by converting human waste into compost and renewable energy and have installed 190 processing plants across India, providing cheap biogas for household heating and electricity. Their production of compost has produced a consistent revenue stream, which has been estimated at over $33 million per year (Murray and Ray 2010). In Shirdi, Maharashtra, Sulabh built the world’s largest sanitation facility, covering two acres and serving 30,000 users a day (Goyal and Gupta 2009).
Human rights and development goals
Improved sanitation forms part of a climate resilient health system, a broad framework designed by the WHO to provide guidance for health systems and public health in a changing climate. This framework points to the need across the globe for greater political will to address the health risks of climate change and coordinate implementation across sectors of: environmental health; vector control; water, sanitation and hygiene; disaster management; health information systems; policy; and finance.
A growing understanding of the links between sustainable sanitation and climate change is important to the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG 6 aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030 and Target 6.3 seeks various ways to improve water quality, including halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally. Currently, it is estimated that 80% of wastewater flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused. SDG 7 seeks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, with Target 7.2 focused on increasing the substantially and share of renewable energy (which stood at 17.3% in 2017). SDG 13 focuses on urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts and Target 13.1 strengthens resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters. Improving sanitation in climate resilient forms, as well as increasing the generation of renewable energy, protecting the environment through the treatment of wastewater and faecal sludge can help the world combat climate change through the SDGs.
Sanitation is a human right under international law, whose scope and norms are still developing. Water and sanitation were affirmed as distinct human rights by the UN in 2010. They are ‘inextricably linked to the highest standard of physical and mental health, as well as the right to life and human dignity’ (UN GA Res 64/292) and ‘essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights’ (UN HRC Res.15/L.14). Furthermore, sanitation as a linked but independent right to water was recognised by UN Res. 70/169 in 2015, which emphasised that the right to sanitation ´entitles everyone, without discrimination, to have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, socially and culturally acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.´ Key to such provision is the climate and how that impacts our living conditions, as access to sanitation is also about ensuring a clean and healthy living environment for all.
As a human right, sanitation crosscuts many other human rights, and inadequate access to sanitation impacts on the rights to ´life, health, gender equality, work, housing, an adequate standard of living, and development´ (Meier et al. 2014) for millions of people around the world. Sanitation is an example of a public health issue that crosses social and cultural barriers. World Toilet Day helps us think more deeply about the longer term climate-related challenges of improving sanitation around the world. Beyond helping eradicate hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths each year, the sanitation crisis will only be compounded by a growing, fluid and more vulnerable global population, driven from their homes by extreme weather events, rising seas, floods or drought.
Building sanitation systems and infrastructure that can withstand climate catastrophes is critical. In addition, cheaply produced renewal and fossil-fuel-free energy can reduce the global carbon footprint, create green jobs, and provide more affordable power in the 21st century and beyond.
Marcus Erridge is Chief Editor of Rights! and a PhD Human Rights in Contemporary Societies candidate at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. His research focuses on the human right to sanitation, data and Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). He worked in university administration for a number of years, and as a Data Analyst and a Senior Researcher for NGOs. Follow his work here; https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marcus_Erridge