Where can I go to the toilet once I leave the house?

WaterAid/GMB Akash
1 Oct 2019

If you are far from home and need the toilet, where do you go? When answering nature’s call, billions of people struggle to find a place to relieve themselves that is dignified and hygienic. On 9 September 2019, Léo Heller, UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Water Supply and Sanitation, brought this issue to the attention of the UN Human Rights Council when presenting his thematic report Human Rights to Water and Sanitation in Spheres of Life Beyond the Household with an Emphasis on Public Spaces.

Heller’s report revealed the terrible impact that a lack of toilets, water and hygiene facilities in public spaces has on people who have been marginalised and discriminated against in various countries across the world. From El Salvador to Bangladesh, here are the headlines of the report.

School directors’ burden

In El Salvador, Heller reported that in rural schools the provision of water was “placed on the directors of the school, rather than on the Government”. This is a clear example of central government and its local representatives failing students in rural communities.

Exploitative tariffs in informal provision

A fundamental issue concerning the provision of water, sanitation and hygiene services is the reliance on the informal sector, which is comprised of workers and enterprises that are not subject to government regulation: “In Kenya, for example, while national guidelines have been established to limit the tariffs levied by small independent providers and water kiosks, those standards are not applied to informal vendors who cannot therefore be held accountable for breaches. Furthermore, the State authorities, while bearing the primary duty for human rights breaches arising from the actions of independent water vendors, are not held accountable for their non-compliance.” This is a worrying situation as many slum-dwellers and marginalised people depend on the informal sector for their daily water, sanitation and hygiene services.

Privatisation can lead to corruption

Since the 1980s, governments have been rushing to privatise public services in all manner of forms, driven by the New Public Management model. The model is very attractive for governments and their agents as it allows them to distance themselves from the provision and accountability for public services. The model also offers incentives for political party members and businesses who could gain from looting public assets or acquiring contractual services. Heller’s report found that in Nairobi, Kenya, “city officials gave complete control of the city’s public toilets to the Nairobi Central Business District Association. However, following the collapse of the association, the issue of who then owned and controlled the toilets became marred by confusion, with the Chair of the organisation suggesting that a former Chair might have sold them to other private entities, but noting that no documentation had been provided to that effect”. 

The report also shows that “where the operation of water and sanitation services is delegated to a private actor by the State, it is commonly achieved through a contract that may or may not include provision for water and sanitation in public spaces. Since few contracts include this provision, private providers are at liberty to refuse to facilitate such services. Even when private providers are obliged to provide services in public spaces, the standards with which they must comply may also be unclear, because the terms of their contracts may not always be publicly disclosed. Equally, the fragmentation of responsibility through privatization generates significant concerns, as human rights provisions do not directly bind them and they are often under no direct legal duty to abide by them, unless they are required to do so under the regulatory framework of the State in question.” What many politicians fail to understand is that governments and any third party that has been contracted to provide public services are still obliged by human rights law to meet people’s needs. Failure to do so tarnishes the image of the state as people denied these services could take the governments to task in various ways - including litigation. Heller will present a more detailed report on privatisation to the UN General Assembly next July. End Water Poverty looks forward to engaging with this report.

Safely managed public toilets are possible

One of the dilemmas surrounding public toilets concerns the quality of service. I have visited some public toilets where I had to hold my noise while doing my business. Poor or declining public services are often caused by funding cuts, which affects the hiring of workers, the provision of the right tools for maintenance and, in some cases, the availability of water. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, WaterAid and its partners demonstrated that, with the right finance and incentives, it is possible to provide toilets that are “clean, safe, and modern” in a crowded city. They designed the toilets to accommodate the needs of the most marginalised and people who spend most of their time on the streets: “The new toilets are provided with safe drinking water, have separate male and female areas, hand-washing facilities, showers and reliable electricity connections, and are stocked with sanitary products for women.” This initiative belies the notion that we need to provide just basic sanitation for people in developing countries who spend most of their day on the streets.

Water as a means of punishment and mental torture

I would like to finish by highlighting the issue of state agencies using water and toilets as a means of punishment and mental torture. “In his joint communication to Bahrain, the Special Rapporteur raised concerns regarding the prison authorities shutting off water, including drinking water, for up to 36 hours, leading to outbreaks of illness among prisoners. Furthermore, during his visit to El Salvador he found prison toilets that were simply holes in the floor, which had to be used by 15 to 25 people and which afforded no privacy at all”. It is appalling that some government agencies see fit to act so cruelly.  

I highly recommend that you read the UN Special Rapporteur’s full report. You might also be interested in watching the debate at the UN Human Rights Council after Heller presented the report. Heller also produced reports on a number of countries: Lesotho, Botswana, El Salvador, Tajikistan, Malaysia and Portugal.