Editorial | The call of toilets
It passed Jamaica by without acknowledgement, official or otherwise. But Monday was World Toilet Day, marked annually by the United Nations (UN) since 2013, to focus attention on one of the world's enduring problems, the global crisis of toilets - or the insufficiency of them.
According to the UN, 4.5 billion people don't have toilets, or those they have don't safely manage excreta. That's 60 per cent of the world's population. Nearly 900 million people around the world defecate in the open, with the risk of their faeces contaminating groundwater systems.
Further, the UN reports that one-third of all schools around the world has no toilets for students; 900 million of whom have no hand-washing facilities, which is an important deterrent to the spread of diseases. At the same time, 80 per cent of the wastewater generated by human beings flows back into drains, rivers and streams, the ecosystem, generally, without being treated: nearly two billion use unimproved sources of drinking water. In other words, that water is untreated, with the possibility of being contaminated by human faeces.
In the circumstances, it is understandable that millions of people become sick, of which many die each year from avoidable sanitation-related diseases. By some estimates, over US$260 billion a year is reported in lost production because of such illnesses.
The likely reflex of many Jamaicans to these statistics is to believe that they don't apply to us, and that if anything of the kind exists here, it's only in very isolated pockets. They are, of course, wrong. There is, too, even if not as severe, a toilet/sanitation problem in Jamaica.
While the 2015 Survey of Living Conditions, the latest one from which data is publicly available, reported that approximately 78 per cent of Jamaican homes have flush toilets, only around two-thirds of households relied exclusively on them. And only half of homes had indoor tap water, although the vast majority of people had an improved source of drinking water.
The point is that good sanitation is not universally accessible in Jamaica, evidenced by the not-infrequent reports of people in urban communities defecating in plastic carrying bags, which they dispose of in gullies and drains that, ultimately, flow to the sea.
Many of these communities have the remnants of sanitation infrastructure, such as sewage-treatment facilities, or individual septic tanks. But many of these have decayed under the pressure of urban blight and the inability of governments, over many years, to afford investments in infrastructure.
These problems have been exacerbated by the rapid growth of squatting and informal communities in recent decades - 750 of them, according to the Government. Indeed, the opposition People's National Party estimates the number of people in such communities at around 900,000, or a third of the country's population.
Some of these people may have access to piped and treated water, flush toilets, or pit latrines. Some don't. Some defecate in the open. They, and the society, face dangers similar to those outlined by the UN in its review of the global situation and its calls for the world's attention to this problem.
Jamaica's solutions to these problems rest, in part, in lifting more people out of poverty, programmes for the accelerated building of low-income homes, as announced by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, and the planned initiative by Opposition Leader Peter Phillips to use uncollected National Housing Trust refunds to finance urban renewal.
At the same time, too, there is the possibility of the application of creative thinking and appropriate technologies to fashion solutions to this problem. Recently, in Beijing, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hosted an expo on toilet technology, including ones that used little or no water, removed pathogens from faeces and delivered fertilisers. Perhaps Jamaica's Scientific Research Council, the local universities and enterprising scientists should join those people who are already putting their minds to this matter.