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Nobody loves a latrine
On World Toilet Day and the need to shift the focus away from the environment to where it really belongs: Health
It's easier to joke about uncomfortable topics than to address them directly. Watching "Weekend at Bernie's" or "Six Feet Under" is preferable to most people than having a frank conversation about death. Using scatological words to express frustration or as a punchline is far more common than speaking directly about the value of sanitation. As a result, it's hard for a message like World Toilet Day to break through. The natural defense mechanism against discomfort gets right in the way of the gravity of the matter.
■ Sometimes it helps to reframe a problem to give it proper perspective. If instead of it being a chronic problem for some of the world and almost never a problem for the rest, what if the entire world had sanitation facilities, but they failed to work 46% of the time? Any air traveler knows that you wouldn't want to take even a 10% chance of being stuck next to a malfunctioning lavatory, much less a 46% chance. The very notion would be intolerable.
■ One of the main obstacles to taking the problem seriously, at least in the United States, is that we usually punt the issue of water quality to authorities whose mission falls under the banner of "the environment". Water quality is supervised at the Federal level by the EPA -- the Environmental Protection Agency. And in many states, the regulatory authority for those services is named a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or a Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). But the plain fact is that Americans don't really care about the environment. We pay it considerable lip service, but we don't treat it as a priority because it falls into the tragedy of the commons.
■ What we do care about is our health. And the simple proof is to look at virtually any household budget. The amount spent on health (whether for health insurance, doctor's visits, gym memberships, fitness equipment, diet foods, nutritional supplements, or any other related goods and services) is virtually certain to outstrip the amount spent on the environment. This gap is why the safe supply and disposal of water must be addressed as a matter of public health, not the environment, if it is ever to be taken seriously.
■ Rare American encounters with malfunctioning sanitation systems often become the fodder for jokes in late-night monologues and radio morning shows, like the 2013 Carnival Triumph debacle. But well-functioning sanitary systems protect people from dreadful diseases like cholera and dysentery, not to mention making it possible to wash our hands and clean our dishes. The World Health Organization estimates that the death toll is over 800,000 a year from the diseases left behind when waste isn't safely conveyed away.
■ Progress is being made on a global basis, but not very quickly. Surely not as quickly as one might expect for the cause of more than 800,000 deaths per year. The enormous, double-decker Airbus A380 carries as many as 575 passengers. If one of those jumbo jets were crashing every six hours and killing everyone aboard, the world would take action immediately. Yet that same toll is being taken by the world gap in sanitation, and the best we can seem to muster is to label it "World Toilet Day".
■ Safe, reliable sanitation is clearly a poverty-linked problem, but taking it seriously demands that the wealthy countries of the world see it as it is: A matter of health, not of the environment -- and a matter of real consequence, rather than one to avoid with the help of punchlines. Words matter. Awareness of the problem is clearly necessary -- but a health-centered, pro-sanitation mindset is the only path ahead, and that change must begin at home.