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Putting Poop In Its Place: The Problems With Bad Global Sanitation

Diseases caused by contact with fecal matter are the largest killer of children in the world. The problem: Not enough toilets. The solutions, as you can see in this infographic, are not so simple.

Everybody poops (or so we’ve heard). But if you’re reading this on the Internet, you probably poop in a toilet that flushes. This seems normal to you but, in fact, you are living in the lap of luxury. That toilet is basically all that’s between you and a life full of disease and hardship. It’s certainly the most important appliance in your house. Just ask the millions of people around the world who die from diseases brought on by bad sanitation. This new infographic from Online Nursing Programs shows just how important toilets are, and just how hard it is to get them to people worldwide who need them (which, see above, is everyone).

The first thing to think about is water. Your toilet uses a lot of it. It makes it super clean and easy. In most of the rest of the world, there isn’t much water to spare (in fact, there might not be too much to spare here, either). Because of how much water it takes to flush—3.5 gallons—if everyone on the planet flushed just once, it would use 24.5 billion gallons of water a day. That’s simply too much.

One in three people around the world don’t have access to even the most basic of sanitation services, which means they are forced to go outside. Set aside questions of modesty, all that poop contains a lot of very bad germs. Once it gets in the water system that people drink, the results can be deadly: 1.4 million children die each year from diseases caused by contact with fecal matter. That’s more than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined, and just because there aren’t any toilets. Why is the death toll so high? Because the total amount of untreated fecal matter that is floating around the world is enormous:

Because of the lack of water, just airlifting flush toilets around the world isn’t a viable solution. Instead, there needs to be a toilet innovation revolution. The flush toilet remains basically unchanged since its invention in 1775. A toilet that would solve our global feces crisis would need to be able to run without electricity, plumbing, or a sewer system. The Gates Foundation is currently challenging people to invent a toilet that fulfills this criteria, in an attempt to cut the number of people with no toilet access in half. Here are some of the leading contenders:

Of course, it isn’t just a question of installing toilets, even modern ones that solve all the problems. In many parts of the world, people are used to defecating outside, and there will have to be serious public service campaigns before there is any serious curbing of disease. For example, between 1997 to 2000, the World Health Organization paid to construct 1.6 million outhouses in rural India. Today, only 47% are being used in the intended manner. The rest are used for storage. To see the whole infographic, click here, or view it below:

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  • yasmink

    Does any one know about the nutritional value of poo? ,its used as fertilizer for vegetables in many parts of our country PAKISTAN . water is not flushed on poo in rural areas and is kept dry with soil to use as farm yard manure

  • Gml Hakmi

    Salmonella , E.coli .. and many human feces micro-organisms are bacterias not viruses :).

  • Mike GSmith

    I think the problem in india is not cultural, it is probably because most people do not have access to a facility or The Toilet. The problem is not only in India, as a matter of fact in the USA, 1.5 Million people still don't have access to a clean toilet. So the problem exists globally. I would definitely like to see toilets access without using any plumbing or electricity use. that would probably be green as well!

  • Kristen Butler

    How about making toilets that turn the poo into compost?  You could even engineer a portable toilet to make this happen! 

  • Msworn

    I was wondering why this didnt get more of a mention? Loads of ideas in there, and in fact pretty much every "Earthship"-style book deals with this matter in a more or less elegant and clean way. Very odd.

  • Leah

    Great article! Thanks for making us think and talk about poop. I'm a big fan of composting toilets personally as we've been using them in Haiti to great effect - toilets, waste treatment and soil regeneration with one simple low-cost technology.

  • Gail Gardner

    While many will believe this is true, the real cause of health issues is malnutrition - and even in first world countries what most people are eating does NOT contain the nutrients we need to be healthy. 

    This could be easily proven. Simply select a group, provide organically grown non-GMO untreated food to half and improved sanitation to the other half and find out which half gets healthier. 

    I don't need a study to know the answer. Both get healthier - but the ones receiving real food the way God created it that humans don't ruin with their manipulations, chemicals, radiation and microwaves will become far healthier over time than the group that gets improved sanitation. 

    The reasons most will never figure this out is because they are so conditioned to believe what they've been taught that they never question even the most outrageous assumptions and as toxic as we all are when we change to real food we will throw out so many toxins that we will have symptoms - sometimes severe - which will make people who aren't positive they're doing the right thing not only stop eating well but actually inject or ingest man-made chemicals to treat their symptoms. Doing that forces your body to deal with those chemicals, too. 

  • LJ

    Composting Latrines.  Simple and effective to build using local materials.  Doesn't require water. When its full, the waste can be put out in the sun, which kills the bacteria, and then used as fertilizer. 

  • Pedant

    None of the three pathogens mentioned are viruses! We have two bacteria and a protozoa. 

  • signalfire1

    Are virii a problem in human waste?   It's my understanding they're transmitted by human fluids (HIV) and coughing, sneezing, etc.; but die rather quickly if dried out.   Which ones are you worried about? 

  • Ms. Anne Thrope

    Yeah, that bugged the crap out of me too (pun intended)...the least the people could do is provide medically-accurate information in the WHOLE infographic. Viruses =/= bacteria =/= protozoa! Change "viruses" to "microorganisms" or "pathogens" and you'll be golden.

  • Poopmonster

    You're right, but if that's all you've got out of the article I think you might be missing the point.