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Social Issues
Global Sanitation: One Billion People Defecate In Public, And Other Surprising Facts
May 9, 2014
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Indian Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation Secretary Pankaj Jain at a 'Toilets are Beautiful' campaign on World Toilet Day, 2012 (Photo: RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

About a billion people around the world practice "open defecation." The practice can lead to the spread of fatal disease, and is a particular problem for women and girls, for whom going to the bathroom in public can be a serious safety issue, and who often miss school due to lack of sanitation facilities.

These findings come from a new report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF that looks at the progress made on improving drinking water and sanitation around the world. Although the problem is vast, and the disparities between rich and poor can be great, the report says that gap is decreasing every year. Below, five findings from the report.

5. One billion people defecate in the open

As surprising as the number may seem, it's actually a drop from 1.3 billion people in 1990. In societies where open defecation is common — rural India for example, where the rate is nearly 70 per cent — cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid are also much more common. Overall, about 600 million people in India defecate in the open — which means the country accounts for three fifths of the world's total.

4. In some areas, the numbers are going up.

Countries with rapid population growth have actually seen increases in the number of people defecating in the open. In fact, in 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the practice is going up. In Nigeria, for example, the number increased from 23 million to 39 million between 1990 and 2012.

3. Access isn't the only issue

According to the report, attempts to build latrines to improve sanitation have been mixed. Bangladesh has been able to eliminate open defecation almost entirely since 1990. But in India, progress has been much slower. "In all honesty the results have been abysmal," UNICEF statistician Rolf Luyendijk told "There are so many latrines that have been abandoned, or were not used, or got used as storage sheds. We may think it's a good idea but if people are not convinced that it's a good idea to use a latrine, they have an extra room." The report argues that attitude changes need to go along with improvements in access — which is why UNICEF launched Poo2Loo, a campaign design to raise awareness of good sanitation in India. To go along with the campaign, they produced this catchy — and viral — PSA:

2. There's a big rural/urban divide

More than half of the world's population lives in and around cities — and overall, sanitation and drinking water are better in urban areas. But efforts to bring better sanitation to rural areas in the last couple of decades have meant that the gap is narrowing: in 1990, 76 per cent of city dwellers had access to good sanitation, compared to 28 per cent of rural ones. But in 2012, those numbers were 80 per cent and 47 per cent, respectively.

1. More than half the world has the highest level of water access

The report outlines some of the great strides that have been made in bringing clean drinking water to everyone around the world. Because of these efforts, nearly four billion people now have a piped water connection right to their homes. And since 1990, 2.3 billion people have gained access to drinking water from improved sources.



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