Monday 19th November is World Toilet Day.
This year’s theme is ‘sanitation’ which is an excellent opportunity to highlight global inequality in terms of access to toilets, but also the opportunities to solve these issues and provide sustainable recycling solutions from waste.
It has always been instinctually understood by humans, as with most animals, that there should be a separation between where we go to the toilet, and where we eat and sleep. However, with advancements in science and technology, this separation has only been effectively achieved very recently in the context of human history.
Developments in microscopy during the 18th and 19th Century made the link between diseases such as cholera and typhus (then widely prevalent in Europe) and waterborne pathogens (suddenly visible under the microscopic lens). Water, the great giver of life could also be the bringer of death and disease.
Previous to the work of scientists such as Louis Pasteur – who developed germ theory - waterborne diseases were popularly thought to reside in the mysterious all permeating ‘ether’, in the absence of a more realistic explanation. Advances in microbiology made clear the necessity of reducing public exposure to waste streams, and importantly, to deliver treatment to these waste streams before discharge into receiving waters.
Great feats of engineering followed, the installation of huge sewerage networks, with some pipework built in the late 19th century still operational and serving the wastewater network in cities such as Dublin. Along with the sewerage networks, many modes of wastewater treatment were developed serving the needs of populations around the world. Sewage treatment continues to progress in ever more novel and energy efficient ways, with a recent focus on extracting resources from the waste; energy from biogas, valuable nutrients through recovery processes, and of course recycling that most valuable resource of all, water.
For instance, at the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant in Dublin, operated by Celtic Anglian Water, wastewater treatment creates methane rich biogas, which is burned in engines providing up to 50% of the plant’s power requirements – the equivalent of a small Irish town, and the processing of Biosolids creates thousands of tonnes of a nutrient rich fertiliser in pellet form. In the future there are plans to extract Phosphorous from the wastewater, which is a limited nutrient on a global scale.
It goes without saying that sanitation is a basic human right, and in Ireland we are fortunate to have access to an efficient, sustainable and hygienic sanitation system. But this is certainly not the case for many across the world.
World Toilet Day highlights the unacceptable fact that more than half the world’s population have inadequate access to sanitation provisions. 4.5 billion people live without safely managed sanitation, and as many as 850 million practice open defecation in the absence of suitable facilities. Open defecation presents an acute disease risk in densely populated areas, resulting in malodours, pollution, and also depending on the circumstances it can leave people vulnerable while engaging in the act of defecation.
This vulnerability can be particularly acute for women and girls who may be under social or cultural pressures not to be seen relieving themselves in public, waiting in some settings until after dark before venturing out. This wait itself can result in urinary tract infections. Unfortunately, it is also not unknown for women to be subjected to harassment and sexual assault while attempting to relieve themselves in public areas.
Most shocking of all is that as many as 340,000 children are still dying annually of easily prevented diarrheal diseases due to non-availability of access to what the UN defines as WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) (source: UNICEF 2015).
Since the 1990s the UN has run a number of programmes to achieve Sustainable Development Goals, including the goal to ensure “the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. World Toilet Day was conceived as a global day to inspire action to help tackle the global sanitation crisis in 2001 and was subsequently adopted as an official UN holiday in 2013. Since 2013, every November 19th charitable organisations, civil society organisations and various other groups have co-ordinated events across the glove to mark this day and raise awareness of the sanitation crisis that affects billions of people, mostly in the Global South.
Novel technologies are now emerging which may greatly improve access to basic sanitation provisions around the world. For example, a group at Cranfield University has developed a nano-membrane toilet which requires neither plumbing to the water supply or to the wastewater network. This standalone unit separates liquid waste from the solid fraction, and the solid fraction is ‘micro-combusted’ creating enough heat energy to pasteurise the liquid fraction which is subsequently filtrated. The only outputs from the unit are a clean pathogen free water suitable for irrigation and some domestic uses and an ash which is easily disposable. Such standalone solutions provide sustainable options in areas where the wider sewerage infrastructure remains underdeveloped, particularly in more remote regions.
The World Toilet Day website www.worldtoiletday.com has information on the global sanitation challenge and guidelines for organising fundraising or other ways of getting involved. The nominated charity of Celtic Anglian Water and its parent company Anglian Water is WaterAid, whose vision is a world where everyone, everywhere, has safe water sanitation and hygiene www.wateraid.org/uk