World Toilet Day isn’t just about toilets, it’s about the systems that surround them

A man and a woman are squatting and laughing on a sunny day outdoors as they smooth cement that is pat of toilet construction

Water for Women WASH specialist, Matthew Bond reflects on how far sanitation has come.


Happy World Toilet Day! Little did I think that one day I would be celebrating World Toilet Day—celebrating it, or even holding an interest in it. And there is so much to celebrate.

Back when I started working in “watsan” (as WASH was once known), there were many engineers working on water and our efforts at sanitation were far from what might be celebrated. In truth, they were often pretty hopeless and often a disaster from a sustainability standpoint. Everyone in the WASH sector has heard the stories of toilets built by projects that were used as storerooms, chook pens, kept just for visitors, or entirely abandoned.

Now, however, sanitation is the most exciting thing I see (and, yes, I know I handwashing is exciting, too, but that’s been celebrated already this year)!

So, why do I find sanitation so exciting? I think it’s for two reasons. First, we get to create change at scale. This contrasts with the challenges for water supply, where our work in the past often involved picking a handful of communities spread out across a region and improving their water access. Our aspirations for sanitation are much bigger—and the achievements match them.

Water for Women is supporting projects that achieve enormous change across whole districts and contribute to national-level aspirations. The work being supported by Water for Women in Timor-Leste is a great example. Manufahi, where WaterAid is working, was last year the fifth of Timor-Leste’s 13 municipalities (formerly districts) to be declared open defecation free (ODF). Where a decade ago we were celebrating one or two villages within a municipality becoming ODF, now it’s whole municipalities! National achievement of ODF in Timor-Leste is now a real prospect, just as has been demonstrated in Nepal, where Water for Women partner SNV has played a strong supportive role in the country being declared open defecation free in late 2019. In Lao PDR, fifteen districts governments recently committed to province-wide ODF by 2024, also supported by SNV through their Water for Women project.

Aside from scale, the other element of sanitation I find especially exciting is that toilets are infrastructure that households can manage for themselves. Through our work, we mobilise communities through a variety of means and then see people direct their own creativity, ingenuity and resources to meeting the sanitation challenge. With a little technical support from government or the private sector, every household can be empowered to take charge of their sanitation needs—they don’t need to wait for a government or development agency to come and find a “solution” for them.

This is not to deny that different households have different capacity and opportunity to construct sanitation. As some excellent research by ISF working with SNV (both Water for Women partners) makes clear, ‘people are not being left behind only due to a single reason such affordability, lack of access to markets, or behavioural norms’ and our sanitation approaches need to engage with the complex and interrelated causes of disadvantage if we are to reach all marginalised households.

How long will our excitement about scale and reaching vulnerable households last? Clearly, this can only be the case while these achievements are sustained. As a sector, we have definitely improved the range and sophistication of our approaches, but are we learning enough about whether these approaches are leading to sustained change?

This is particularly important now that we are more open to providing hardware subsidies to achieve universal coverage. There’s an underlying assumption in our work that when we provide financing support to low-income households to purchase or build their own infrastructure, they will meet the ongoing costs of operating that service safely and sustaining access. We’re getting better in our approaches, but we ought not make the mistake of assuming sustainability has been achieved without checking that this is so.

The systems thinking that is inherent in the Water for Women design will guide our response to this—sanitation isn’t a whole lot of toilets, it’s about the systems that go around them.

And given that we’re serious about sustainability, as a sector we will increasingly be making the link between sanitation and climate change. We can do more than just adapt by making sanitation infrastructure more resilient to the extreme weather and water stress that the climate emergency is unleashing, important though that is. There are in fact opportunities to treat faecal sludge as a resource rather than a waste product and to consider the emissions from the way we manage faeces, whether in individual pits or communal systems. This was immediately recognised when Water for Women partners developed the Fund Learning Agenda and set up a link between the two themes of safely managed WASH and climate change - watch this space.

The Learning Agenda prioritises the themes that Fund partners will explore over the remaining years of the Water for Women Fund, drawing on their significant WASH sector knowledge, and establishing new knowledge and improved practice. In doing so, we can overcome the mistakes of the past and build greater sustainability and resilience in the communities where we operate. In the current context of climate change, when many of these communities are extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts, this is imperative.

There is much to do and at present, we’re perhaps only just recognising the full scale of the challenge and the urgency required to develop solutions. I am hopeful, however, that in the near future, our World Toilet Day celebrations will be marking the significant contribution that universal and sustainable sanitation has made to combatting climate change.


Photo: toilet construction in Lao PDR where SNV is working to achieve sustainable sanitation and hygiene for all (SNV/Bart Verweij)


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