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#IGiveAShit, The global politics of sanitation and #WorldToiletDay 2012 #WTD2012

Telling anyone (even some of your academic peers) that you specialize in doing scholarly work on the global politics of sanitation and the governance of wastewater is sometimes the surest way to make people chuckle and laugh. When I first shared the news about World Toilet Day (organized by the World Toilet Organization and endorsed by numerous international organizations) to my colleagues (I’ve been writing about World Toilet Day since last year, but I have done scholarly work on the social science of wastewater since 2004, and actual engineering work on wastewater treatment since much longer) the vast majority couldn’t contain a muffled laugh.

What is not to laugh is the sheer size of the wastewater and sanitation problem.

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World Toilet Day is observed annually on 19 November. This international day of action aims to break the taboo around toilets and draw attention to the global sanitation challenge.

Can you imagine not having a toilet? Can you imagine not having privacy when you need to relieve yourself? Although unthinkable for those living in wealthy parts of the world, this is a harsh reality for many – in fact, one in three people on this globe, does not have access to a toilet! Have you ever thought about the true meaning of dignity?

World Toilet Day was created to pose exactly these kind of questions and to raise global awareness of the daily struggle for proper sanitation that a staggering 2.5 billion people face.

World Toilet Day brings together different groups, such as media, the private sector, development organisations and civil society in a global movement to advocate for safe toilets. Since its inception in 2001, World Toilet Day has become an important platform to demand action from governments and to reach out to wider audiences by showing that toilets can be fun and sexy as well as vital to life.

What follows below is a couple of paragraphs of the introduction to my (forthcoming) book on networked governance of wastewater. It is also the justification of why I am so keen on spreading the word about World Toilet Day: Because #IGiveAShit (yes, that’s the hashtag that the World Toilet Day folks are using – and yes, it’s a funny play on words – I do care deeply about sanitation, and below is just part of the reason why).

2.9 billion people worldwide do not have access to a toilet (George 2010). 894 million people lack access to safe water (World Water Assessment Project 2011). 2.5 billion people live without proper sanitation and 1.1 billion still defecate in the open (Joint Monitoring Programme 2012). Wastewater, and more importantly, human waste (carried through using fresh water) is still a taboo topic. People get excited about water, and worried about water abundance. Strangely enough, they don’t really think about wastewater, much less about how different the challenges from governing wastewater are with respect to governing freshwater or groundwater. This is what drives my research. I want to ensure that I bring the invisible forth.

Today 2.5 billion people, including almost one billion children, live without even basic sanitation. Every 20 seconds, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation. That’s 1.5 million preventable deaths each year (WWSC 2012). There are substantial economic gains to be made from investing in sanitation and water, estimated at US $170 billion per year. According to the Sanitation and Water for All initiative, if everyone had access to sanitation and water, the global health sector would save around US $15 billion every year. Still, despite the huge economic and health gains that could be made from paying enough attention to wastewater systems and implementing appropriate technologies, worldwide sanitation remains one of the most controversial taboo topics in public policy literature and as a result, policy sciences’ body of work suffers from a “culture of flushing” (Benidickson 2007).

I want to ensure that the culture of flushing is no longer the norm but the exception. I am not all that interested in “the exciting, the new”. I am interested in innovative projects, in cutting-edge, state-of-the-art scholarship. Understanding how to govern wastewater is precisely state-of-the-art thinking. Knowing the broad variety of ways in which governing freshwater is completely different from managing effluents has huge policy implications: it enables us to strengthen public health processes. It enhances our ability to prevent waterborne diseases. Learning how to govern wastewater enables us to close the hydrological cycle, and really take a systemic view of water that goes beyond traditional, engineering-based, uni-disciplinary approaches. Governing wastewater is one of the best ways to learn to govern ourselves.

World Toilet DayI am actually quite surprised about the amount of coverage that World Toilet Day is getting. Definitely not in small amount due to the sheer power of social media. I’ll credit the folks at @WorldToilet and @WorldToiletDay for engaging in a very solid social media campaign to raise awareness (funny and engaging). Credit is due too to Matt Damon for helping raise awareness about the global sanitation crisis. In a world where we haven’t solved yet the sanitation crisis, it’s important not to forget that not everybody has access to a toilet, to proper infrastructure.

#IGiveAShit. So should you. Join the many initiatives worldwide to raise awareness and try to solve the sanitation crisis.

A few resources:

Toilet Twinning (Twitter) A charity to help improve sanitation in Africa and/or Asia

2.6 billion people don’t have access to a loo. You can link yours with one in Africa or Asia & help flush away poverty. From UK based charities Cord & Tearfund

Toilet Hackers (Twitter)- Organizers of the Sanitation Hackathon.
“Hacking the world’s toilet crisis to improve access to sanitation and hygiene for 2.5 billion people”

– World Toilet Day 2012 coverage on Twitter (#IGiveAShit, #WTD2012, #WorldToiletDay)

The Public Toilet: (Twitter)

Use The Public Toilet to raise awareness for the 1.1 billion who cannot go in private. Add your face from Nov 17 2012 at

Canadian and Mexican media (and worldwide media): I will make myself available this weekend and also on World Toilet Day (this coming Monday, November 19th) to discuss the global sanitation crisis and why thinking about toilets should matter.

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Posted in bridging academia and practice, wastewater, water governance.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Two Birds, One Stone: Super Bowl XXXXVIII + World Cancer Day | Spectrum Science Blog linked to this post on February 5, 2014

    […] irreverent hashtag about toilets has led to a global health campaign, complete with a body of scholarly research and some of the world’s biggest celebrities at its […]

  2. Two Birds, One Stone: Super Bowl XLVIII + World Cancer Day linked to this post on April 8, 2014

    […] irreverent hashtag about toilets has led to a global health campaign, complete with a body of scholarly research and some of the world’s biggest celebrities at its […]

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