Toilets as the pathway to prosperity


19 Nov 2014 | AU

Indian Prime Minister Modi has had a rock star welcome in Australia. Surprising to many, his message is about cleanliness and toilets.

Today is World Toilet Day (19 November), an often unremarked UN day.  But Modi knows that for India a clean country, and good sanitation, is a pathway out of poverty and into prosperity.

Global economic losses from poor sanitation are estimated at a staggering $260 billion. Modi says his mission for every household to have a toilet in India by 2019, is greater than Kennedy’s mission in the 1960s to put a man on the moon.

This year’s World Toilet Day coincides with the launch of the Global Nutrition Report – the first comprehensive overview of global progress on nutrition. And there is a link between lack of toilets and malnutrition. Still today more than 2.5 billion people don’t have access to adequate sanitation.

Ongoing exposure to disease-causing pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites from open defecation in the early years of life can cause repeated diarrhoea and intestinal worm infections that can stunt a child’s physical growth and impair cognitive development. Persistently high rates of child malnourishment and stunting in India, despite many years of economic growth, are testament to this.

Malnutrition - whether it’s experienced as undernutrition, anemia or overweight - is something that affects every country on the planet.  Interventions focused specifically on improving dietary intake have a major role to play, but they alone are not enough. The environment children grow up in is also key. Improving communities’ access to safe water, toilets and good hygiene practices allows children to reach their potential.

The Global Nutrition Report highlights that Australia has met its commitments to fight malnutrition in the region. But more could be done to support economic growth and development regionally. Keeping water supply, sanitation and hygiene as part of the international commitments under the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals is a critical first step.

If other leaders showed the commitment of Prime Minister Modi and put toilets on the world agenda, they would be making a lasting contribution to world prosperity.

Paul Nichols, Chief Executive, WaterAid Australia