Why opening a new community toilet should be glamorous

Posted 21 Sep 2015 by Barbara Frost

Five days ahead of the Sustainable Development Summit in New York, Barbara Frost Chief Executive at WaterAid, explains the necessity of integrating water and sanitation into the Sustainable Development framework, and why they have so often been overlooked.

Nestling in the shadow of a magnificent avenue of giant baobab trees is a school that helps encapsulate how thinking around water and sanitation provision needs to change if the world is to meet the goal of universal access by 2030.

Up until three years ago, the Tsimahavoabe school in western Madagascar had neither a safe water supply, nor any toilets. Pupils and teachers needing to relieve themselves during the day had to use the bushes behind the school.

Without any safe water available to drink, pupils were often dehydrated during the day, thus becoming sleepy and unable to concentrate.

A school transformed

After bringing toilets and safe water to the school, WaterAid revisited to see how it had made a difference.

Wearing a broad-brimmed sunhat, teacher Mariette Razanamparany beamed as she told us access to safe, clean water and toilets had transformed the school. Attendance had gone up and parents felt much more positive about sending their children - who were much more active and motivated - to school. It also had a real effect on how she felt about working there.

Portrait of Mariette Razanamparany, 49 years old, teacher in Tsimahavaobe School, Madagascar.
Mariette Razanamparany, teacher at Tsimahavaobe School in Menabe region, Madagascar. 

Previously Mariette said she had found it hard to teach at the school, feeling uncomfortable about having nowhere private to go to the toilet. Using neighbours' toilets and walking to fetch water had meant that she had to leave pupils for long periods of time thus affecting their education. But with the new toilets and water supply, the school was now able to attract more teachers.

This example encapsulates how those striving to bring about universal access need to make sure that water, sanitation and hygiene issues emerge out of the silo and become mainstream. They should be seen as an essential element of the drive to eradicate extreme poverty through improving education, healthcare, gender equality, malnutrition rates and so on.

The added value of bringing water

Tsimahavoabe school demonstrates the added value of bringing water to a community. Hydrated and with a toilet close at hand, the pupils are more able to study and teachers are attracted to the school by better working conditions. School attendance goes up, in part because pupils get sick less often now that open defecation is reduced, and also because school is now a nicer place to be. Girls are less likely to drop out at puberty knowing that they will be able to deal with their periods in privacy. The result of it all is that you are more likely to end up with better-educated young adults with all the benefits they bring to society, economy and future generations.

Bring safe water to a community and you can free up hours of time for women who no longer have to walk to collect river water that may then make them and their family sick. Those new pockets of time could be used to start a new business helping their family to escape extreme poverty, increasing their children's life chances and helping, in a small but vital way, to boost their country's economy.

The ripple effect

Just under 40 percent of all healthcare facilities in Africa do not have access to even rudimentary levels of water, increasing the risk of infection and making it much harder to provide a hygienic environment that aids recovery.

Until every hospital and health clinic has safe water and sanitation any attempt to improve healthcare is undermined and the effectiveness of any investment in new equipment, staff or treatments is severely reduced. Patients will take longer to recover, costing the economy in missed working days and additional costs to the health service.

We call this the ripple effect - how the impact of safe water and sanitation touches so many aspects of life and economies. Yet it is often overlooked by those planning investment.

Too often, the water ministry is a poorly funded backwater of government lacking in the prestige of, say, education or health. Opening the new community toilet may lack the glamour of cutting the ribbon on a new hospital, so fewer politicians lobby for their communities to gain sanitation.

Looking to the future

To help overcome this historic disadvantage, we need to make sure that the responsibility for ensuring safe water and sanitation is shared by every headmaster, hospital chief or town planner so that it becomes inconceivable that a new school or hospital could be built without these basic services. To bring real change, we need the role water and sanitation can play in lifting communities out of poverty to be recognised by every finance minister. After all, it is estimated that for every $1 invested in providing clean water, the economy receives a $4 productivity boost.

We will not meet the post-2015 goal unless we redouble our efforts. As a sector, we must seek new sources of funding, work with new partnerships and be bolder in holding others to account, as well as being prepared to be held to account by others.

The goal is ambitious, but when it is met, it will be a truly historic moment.

This blog post was originally commissioned by Huffington Post US. The original version appeared on the Huffington Post website.

To keep up to date with WaterAid at the Sustainable Development Summit visit


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  • isse said:

    1 Oct 2015 16:40

    congratulation WaterAid, for your effort. this is the time to eradicate poverty.

    thank you

    isse moahmed ali


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