Increasing Access to Toilets Can Save Millions of Lives and US$260 Billion in Economic Losses

April 25, 2013

  • 2.5 billion people without access to toilets face poor health outcomes and constrained economic prospects in their communities.
  • The World Bank is committed, along with the UN and other global and local partners, to expand sanitation among the poorest. Unique partnerships with the private sector can help create markets and lead to sustainable solutions for the sanitation crisis.
  • As highlighted by the World Bank’s Sanitation Hackathon winners, innovative uses of technology can support breakthrough sanitation solutions.

One out of every three people in the world today has no toilet. Of the 2.5 billion people without proper toilets or sewage systems, nearly one billion people regularly defecate in rivers or fields, spreading germs that cause diarrheal disease. Diarrheal disease kills thousands of children each day – it is the second leading cause of death in children under five. Children who survive this preventable disease often miss school due to illness or suffer from malnutrition and stunting detrimental to their long-term health. Furthermore, poor sanitation also leads to costs valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars every year by damaging health, environment, and tourism.

The economic losses that stem from this lack of access to proper sanitation amount to an estimated US$260 billion annually, more than the entire gross domestic product of Chile. In some countries, economic losses from the lack of sanitation are equivalent to up to 7 percent of GDP.

Toilets move into focus 

As the largest multilateral financier of water and sanitation development, the World Bank is renewing its commitment to a worldwide effort to expand access to sanitation. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has articulated a strategy that seeks to end extreme poverty by 2030 and promote shared prosperity to boost the incomes of the poorest 40 percent of the population in each country, who are often those most affected by the sanitation crisis. Expanding access to sanitation is key to both ending poverty and providing the basis for greater prosperity worldwide. 

Sanitation development practitioners recognize the need to leverage the renewed sense of energy focused on sanitation and embrace innovative approaches to make a large scale impact in sanitation. Leading up to the recent World Bank-IMF spring meetings, a high-profile event on investing in sanitation brought together World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development Rachel Kyte, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, and American Standard Vice President for Product Development Jim McHale to discuss the crisis and taboo associated with discussing poor sanitation. 

" Investing in sanitation is a win-win proposition. [Investing in sanitation] will mean millions of people can live productive lives, and lives with dignity. It will mean the Millennium Development Goals can be achieved, and it will mean healthy societies can be built. There are only winners if we all mobilize.  "

Jan Eliasson

UN Deputy Secretary-General

The renewed focus on toilets is integrated with a broader push for sanitation worldwide, and the UN and World Bank are partnering to bring attention to this issue.

“If we all do our part, we can achieve substantial results," said Eliasson, regarding a drive to scale sanitation approaches that work and end open defecation. “Investing in sanitation is a win-win proposition. [Investing in sanitation] will mean millions of people can live productive lives, and lives with dignity.  It will mean the Millennium Development Goals can be achieved, and it will mean healthy societies can be built. There are only winners if we all mobilize.” 

The panelists recognized the need to engage the private sector. 

“We need to aspire to bring in the private sector, to find the business models that will sustain sanitation at scale,” Kyte said. 

From his perspective at American Standard, McHale described the recent experience his company had in Bangladesh, partnering with the Gates Foundation and iDE to invest in market research to understand consumer needs. The collaboration resulted in a US$1.50 toilet, affordable for many of the world’s poor, designed by one of the world’s largest producers of toilets and bathroom fixtures. 

Leveraging focus with new approaches

During the event, the World Bank announced the three grand prize winners of the Sanitation Hackathon and App Challenge, a year-long project to surface innovative and locally relevant apps that address sanitation challenges, such as insufficient wastewater management and sanitation facilities.

The three grand prize winning teams emerged from over 70 that registered following a global hackathon event that engaged technologists and sector experts in 40 cities from Lima, Peru, to Pune, India, and beyond. The grand prize winners announced were: mSchool, an SMS reporting tool that enables students, parents, and teachers to monitor and report on school sanitation facilities; Sun-Clean, an app designed to teach children good sanitation and hygiene practices through games; and Taarifa, an open source web application that enables public officials to tag and respond to citizen complaints about the delivery of sanitation services. 

“The Sanitation Hackathon and App Challenge demonstrates how creativity and technology can help to develop locally relevant and sustainable solutions to longstanding development challenges,” said Kyte.