Could you live without a toilet?


It’s hard to imagine living without something as simple – and vital – as a toilet. Yet just over 150 years ago this was the daily reality for many people in the UK. Without adequate sanitation or safe water to drink, disease was rife. It was the cause of child mortality levels found in Africa today.

Faced with this devastating crisis, the government took action, creating water and sewerage systems that saved countless lives, improved public health and spurred Britain’s development. The expansion of our water and sanitation infrastructure in the 1880s contributed to a fifteen-year increase in life expectancy in just four decades.

It’s shocking to think that in the 21st century almost two fifths of the world’s population, some 2.6 billion people, are still living every day without one of life’s most basic necessities – a toilet. Diarrhoea, caused by dirty water and poor sanitation, is the biggest killer of children in Africa and the second biggest killer of children in South Asia.

A few years ago the International Development Committee, of which I am a member, published a report highlighting that water and sanitation should sit right at the heart of development.

Why? Because not having clean water to drink and a safe place to go to the toilet keeps people trapped in poverty and puts great strain on the health services and economies of developing nations. At any one time half the hospital beds in developing countries are taken up by people suffering from diseases associated with dirty water and poor sanitation – people who could be out earning a living or caring for their families. Children who should be in school.

We visited Ethiopia to look at DFID’s work on water and sanitation in practice. We saw a country with a desperate need – Ethiopia has almost the lowest sanitation coverage in the world and half the people lack a reliable water supply. And yet the country has huge potential – Ethiopia has abundant water resources but only a tiny proportion are currently used.

This is an international scandal that is killing millions of children every year and keeping billions more living in poverty. We can and must stop this crisis. The scale of the problem may seem vast, but there are simple, cost effective solutions available that can not only save lives but transform them, providing the first, crucial steps out of poverty.

With good sanitation facilities and safe water available close to home, precious hours that were once spent recovering from illness or walking to find water can now be spent in more productive ways, from working to earn a living to looking after children or going to school and getting an education. This is what makes water and sanitation such a good investment – for every £1 spent £8 is generated in increased productivity.

The Labour government left an outstanding legacy on development and achieved much in water and sanitation, bringing services to many millions of people in Africa and South Asia. I have seen for myself – whether in Ethiopia, India or Zimbabwe – how important this work is. It has saved lives, improved child and maternal health and empowered women in developing countries.

I welcome the UK government’s commitment to investing in water and sanitation and for sticking by the UK’s promise to increase our international aid spend to 0.7% of our gross national income by 2013.

But there is much more to do if we are to make a real change for the 2.6 billion people living without sanitation – and the 884 million without safe water. We must ensure that water and sanitation are at the heart of development.

To mark World Toilet Day (today), international charity WaterAid is launching a campaign, Water Works, calling on governments across the world to do more to tackle the water and sanitation crisis ahead of the upcoming High Level Meeting on water and sanitation in Washington DC next April. I’ll be putting my support behind the campaign and I urge you to do the same at:

  • This article was first published on the LabourList blog

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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