World Toilet Day: Experts say climate change is intensifying sanitation crisis

In Bangladesh’s Kalabogi village, in the Khulna District, most people use open air, hanging toilets which empty directly into the river. Photo by: WaterAid / DRIK / Habibul Haque

ALICANTE, Spain — On World Toilet Day, WASH experts say climate change is intensifying the sanitation crisis and are calling for more support.

Currently 4.2 billion people lack access to safely managed sanitation. Without it, human feces can contaminate groundwater, rivers, and lakes, polluting what is often the only supply of water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. This jeopardizes people’s health by exposing them to waterborne diseases, such as cholera, diarrhea, and dysentery.

Climate change — with its increasing floods, cyclones, rising temperatures, and droughts — is aggravating the situation by causing damage to existing sanitation systems, said Hasin Jahan, Bangladesh country director at WaterAid. Floods can damage toilets, sea level rises can expose sewage pipes to corrosive saltwater, and droughts can limit water needed to empty toilets or latrines. Such events have the potential to diminish any hard-won gains in sanitation access.

“This World Toilet Day we need to all think how we can make this day a genuine celebration of success, rather than what it is: an annual reminder of one of the world's biggest human rights failures.”

— Patrick Moriarty, CEO, IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre

“When the typical, traditional sanitary toilets get inundated or damaged by natural disasters of any kind, then people suffer,” Jahan said, adding that women, and their ability to manage menstrual hygiene, are particularly affected by the damage of sanitation facilities.

WaterAid is calling for the international community to increase investment in disaster-resilient sanitation infrastructure and to include sanitation plans in their climate change adaptation strategies.

Research by the organization reveals that in Niger, Chad, and Liberia — which are in the top 10 countries most at risk from climate change — upward of 80% of people lack access to basic sanitation. In Chad, that’s over 13.7 million people. Yet just 1.6% of climate finance goes toward the adaptation of water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Without action, it’s thought that by 2030 climate change will be responsible for claiming an additional 250,000 lives per year as a result of malaria, diarrheal disease, heat stress, and undernutrition. Abdus Shaheen, country program manager in Bangladesh at Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor, said those with a low-income are most vulnerable.  

Investment in resilient sanitation systems not only safeguard’s health but the sanitation economy is a pivotal component of combating climate change on a global scale, Alexandra Knezovich, director of operations at the Toilet Board Coalition, said.

As a “regenerative resource provider,” wastewater and sludge from sanitation systems can be transformed into renewable energy, fertilizers, and animal feed.

“It’s the only resource that grows with the population rather than against it and so we see it as a prime opportunity for multinationals or other stakeholders that are working on climate change to look,” Knezovich said.

“This World Toilet Day we need to all think how we can make this day a genuine celebration of success, rather than what it is: an annual reminder of one of the world's biggest human rights failures for billions of people,” Patrick Moriarty, CEO at the IRCWASH, said in an email, adding that the only way to break the cycle of failure is to build systems that deliver sanitation and water services that last.

In practice, that could involve building raised toilets to prevent flood damage and waste spillage, implementing early warning systems that allow communities time to protect toilets and sanitation systems, and installing sewage treatment facilities in flood-prone areas.

While some measures may seem costly, Jahan said resilience doesn’t always have to come at a high price. Sometimes it can be as simple as choosing the right location or the right height for an intervention to better safeguard it. “If we think of resilience from the very beginning, from the planning stage, that will give a better chance of that infrastructure to be resilient,” she said.

When Cyclone Amphan hit Bangladesh in May, Jahan said the damage to sanitation facilities was nominal compared to that of areas without such systems.

For World Toilet Day, WSUP has released three key steps for building climate-resilient sanitation systems specifically in urban contexts. They include implementing water-smart sanitation systems, including simplified sewer systems, which use less water than conventional sewer networks; developing citywide inclusive sanitation, which entails improving the construction of toilets and waste collection and ensuring drains are closed; and integrating WASH into urban climate resilience programs.

In Bangladesh, Shaheen said WSUP alongside local governments and private sector organizations is working to implement some of these steps. “Together with the government initiatives all of the sector actors are working together and our role is how we can safely manage sanitation and show models that can be replicated by the government,” he said.

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About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.