We Must Stop Taking Clean Water and Sanitation for Granted: Here's What You Can Do (Video)

In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly named November 19 World Toilet Day, a call to action and to raise awareness about the many people worldwide who lack the basic human right to safe water and proper sanitation.

In the west, we take toilets for granted. But many people can’t do that in the developing world. In fact, 2.4 of the 7 billion people on the planet lack improved sanitation, and 1 billion defecate in the open, which carries a host of risks, particularly to women and children.

World Toilet Day 2016 ties directly into some themes that we here in the United States are facing, namely climate change and infrastructure investment/maintenance.

“Water is the primary medium through which climate change influences Earth’s ecosystem and thus the livelihood and well-being of societies,” according to the U.N.-Water website. Today, 1.8 billion people worldwide don’t have access to safe water. And if we don’t take serious steps to mitigate this crisis, access to water for the world’s most vulnerable people is going to get worse.

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“Sanitation with this toilet is first class. It is affordable even to poor people. It is safe and is not very complicated to use. Very easy. Everybody can use it. Even a kid can go there. After doing what she does, just pour in water, and then go out. And it is very quick [to construct]. Two days, it's already established.” —Pastor Samuel, Uganda

As water levels rise and temperatures soar, drinkable water will become increasingly less accessible here in the U.S. as well as in the developing world.

“The water table is dropping all over the world,” a senior NASA water scientist told the Washington Post last year. “There’s not an infinite supply of water.” The scientist added that climate change is exacerbating the problem.

In the developing world, the task of gathering water falls literally on the shoulders of women and girls, who spend up to six hours a day transporting water, according to the nonprofit Water.org. A blog post earlier this year from UNICEF shows a day in the life of an Ethiopian girl who has to walk eight hours each day to collect less than one and a half gallons of water. “She has little time left for learning, playing or being a child,” notes the caption above a photo of the girl walking through a barren desert with a camel.

Not only are women and girls usually taxed with the physical burden of providing clean water, they also are subjected to particularly unsafe conditions when they lack proper sanitation. Without access to toilets, women and girls put themselves at physical risk to maintain their dignity when they venture out at dusk or at night to defecate. And they face unique challenges without access to sanitation in managing menstruation and pregnancy.

“In many countries, it is not acceptable for a woman to relieve herself during the day,” notes Water.org. “They wait hours for nightfall, just to have privacy.”

“When girls enter puberty, they are often forced to skip classes or drop out of school, because there are no separate toilets for them,” according to UNICEF. “Lack of separate and decent toilets, sanitation and washing facilities discourages girls who are menstruating from attending full time, often adding up to a significant proportion of school days missed.”

In Tanzania, a study found that attendance increased by 12 percent at schools within 15 minutes of available water, compared to schools where water was more than half an hour away.

Here in the United States, toilets are everywhere. But nationwide, the United States received a D rating for drinking water (and a D+ overall for infrastructure) on its 2013 report card from the American Society-Civil Engineers. We really need to recognize the true cost of water and invest in updating the pipes and systems that deliver the services we depend on.

Here’s what you can do to get involved and help end the crisis. First, help raise awareness. Digital communication and social media have made it easy and virtually free to help spread important messages, and you can help do that by sharing World Toilet Day posts and tagging your messages with the #WorldToiletDay hashtag. Second, encourage your elected representatives to support initiatives that help fund international aid and infrastructure investment. Finally, you could consider starting your own fundraiser. To find out more about how to do that, you can visit crowdrise.com/waterforpeople.

If individual people, governments and civic leaders work together, it is possible to solve this crisis. Everyone deserves these basic services—water and a toilet. Don't you agree?

Watch Eleanor Allen's TEDxMileHigh talk, "Water Is a Women's Issue, Here's Why":

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