Why did the toilet paper roll down the hill? To get to the bottom.

Why did the toilet paper roll down the hill? To get to the bottom.

Has that joke left you flushed with amusement? Or was it a flash in the pan? Do you feel you got a bum deal from a supposedly serious editorial? Puns and humour abound whenever toilets or poop come into the conversation, and that’s understandable: over the last couple of hundred years the natural, inevitable act of defecation has been locked out of polite society, to be talked about only with humour or embarrassment. As India’s Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh recently said that “when we talk about sanitation we can only giggle.”

But that is about to change, because today is the first ever UN-endorsed World Toilet Day.

A latrine stands alone in the expanded area of Kobe refugee camp in Dolo Ado refugee camp
A latrine stands alone in the expanded area of Kobe refugee camp in Dolo Ado refugee camp © UNICEF Ethiopia/2012/Ose

That may make you laugh too. After all, there are UN days for Africa Industrialization, Philosophy and Television, and that’s just in November. But behind the humour of toilets and pooping, there are some deadly serious facts and figures that make it obvious why 100 countries – from Afghanistan to Viet Nam – came together earlier this year to pass the resolution that enshrined an official UN World Toilet Day for the first time in history. Here is one figure: 10 million viruses. That’s the number that can be found in only one gram of human faeces. Here is another: 2.5 billion. That’s how many people around the world still have no decent sanitation. One billion of them must do something called “open defecation”, or pooping in the open, in fields, on roadsides, on railway tracks. Every day, nearly two billion tons of human faeces, with a dizzying number of potential viruses, bacteria and worm eggs, are lying around our planet ready to be trodden on, touched or ingested in water and food. The consequences are easy enough to calculate: Diarrhoea, caused by that contaminated food, water and environment, is still the second deadliest killer of children in the world, killing 1,600 children every day. Only pneumonia and respiratory infections are more deadly (by the way, World Pneumonia Day is in November too). Women and girls get a particularly raw deal, having to find somewhere safe to defecate in darkness for modesty’s sake, putting them at risk of rape and animal attacks (linked to another UN day in November focussing on violence against women). That children are dying from something as seemingly trivial as diarrhoea, or girls are getting raped because they have to find somewhere to do their toilet business: neither of those facts should make you giggle (International Children’s Day is also in November).

Yet the attention and funding given to sanitation and diarrhoea – which is easily preventable with adequate sanitation, safe water and good hygiene – have for decades been dwarfed by that given to other causes and challenges such as HIV/AIDS. When the Millennium Development Goals – a set of targets to reduce poverty and better maternal health and education amongst other things – were signed in 2000, sanitation wasn’t even mentioned. (It was added in the 2002 Johannesburg summit.)

Kanu Fanta, 30, mother of 6, washes her hands at a latrine at her house
Kanu Fanta, 30, mother of 6, washes her hands at a latrine at her house in Amari Yewebesh Kebele of Amhara Region in Ethiopia © UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Ose

Luckily, there is much more to celebrate now than ten years ago. Since 1990, 1.9 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation (although population growth means the number without scarcely changed). Even so, on average, 26,000 Africans gained access to sanitation every day, and there are 244 million fewer people defecating in the open worldwide. Also, we’re doing our sums better. The World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program has launched an Economics of Sanitation Initiative that is producing figures to dazzle any treasury minister, calculating that a country can lose 1.5% of its GPD to costs incurred by poor sanitation (economic loss, hospital costs. Kenya loses $324 million a year in this way. India is $54 billion out of pocket (that’s the entire GDP of Croatia). But we can look at those figures from another angle: if we can figure out how to install adequate sanitation for 2.5 billion people, we can save $260 billion a year. Investing $1 in installing sanitation can save up to $5 in economic losses avoided. No matter how you do your sums, that’s a bargain.

Other cheering connections are being made between sanitation and other fields and departments. After research showing that sometimes up to a quarter of schoolgirls drop out of school permanently because of the simple lack of a toilet (usually when they begin menstruating), WASH – water and sanitation and hygiene – in Schools initiatives have multiplied. Experts in malnutrition now understand that sanitation plays a vital role in both the problem and the solution. Improving sanitation can reduce stunting and improve nutrition, the economy and development.

So do laugh by all means. All these new connections and understandings are causes for jubilation, and World Toilet Day is a wonderful way to celebrate them. It’s also a new spotlight on a public health crisis that has been hidden by shame for far too long. If jokes work at getting people to turn their attention to sanitation, let’s keep telling them.

Michel Jarraud, Chair of UN-Water, and Secretary-General of the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

Hon. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, Minister of Lands, Housing and Human Settlements Developments, United Republic of Tanzania, and Chair of the UN-hosted Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC)

HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal, Chair of UNSGAB, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water & Sanitation

Ethiopia celebrates Global Handwashing Day

By Demissew Bizuwork

Global Handwashing Day celebrated at Menilik II Preparatory School, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Global Handwashing Day 2013 was celebrated in Ethiopia on 1st November 2013 under the theme “More than just a day-The power is in your hands”

Global Handwashing Day 2013 was celebrated in Ethiopia on 1st November 2013 under the theme “More than just a day-The power is in your hands”. The event was colourfully marked in Menelik II Primary School where officials from the Federal Ministry of Health, UNICEF, partner organizations, religious leader`s, and the school community all came together putting the emphasis on the importance of Handwashing with soap at critical times.

Washing Hands with soap can reduce the risk Diarrhoea by up to 45%
Washing Hands with soap can reduce the risk Diarrhoea by up to 45%

Though Handwashing is a simple practice, global facts indicate that an estimated 1,400 children under five die every day from diarrhoeal diseases caused by a lack of safe water, sanitation and basic hygiene. In Ethiopia, diarrhoea accounts for 14 per cent of child deaths or an average of 106 children every day. Diarrhoea is also the second largest cause of under-five mortality both globally and in Ethiopia

Led by the renowned artist Sileshi Demissie, who is also hygiene and environmental activist, the school kids performed very enticing songs and drama on Handwashing. Officials and students alike were also involved in the easy to do task of Handwashing demonstration so that the behavior would be practiced regularly by the school children.

Ethiopia aims to ensure access to basic sanitation for all citizens by 2015, with 80 per cent of communities declared open defecation free, and that 77 per cent of the population practice Handwashing at critical times. Deputy Representative of UNICEF Ethiopia Ms Patrizia Di Giovanni on her message stressed that UNICEF is supporting the Federal Ministry of Health to develop National Handwashing Communication Guidelines. The guidelines will help mobilize mass interest among communities, especially children and youth, in making Handwashing with soap or ash a national social norm.

See pictures from the event here http://www.flickr.com/photos/unicefethiopia/sets/72157637186520184

News coverage by Ethiopian Television

Speech by Patrizia Di Giovanni, UNICEF Deputy Representative to Ethiopia, on the day http://www.unicef.org/ethiopia/events_13880.html

Simple hand-washing with soap can cut hundreds of thousands of deaths: UN

In the Central Africa Republic in 2008, a child holds out a bar of soap. UNICEF distributed soap as part of a national immunisation campaign.

From Ethiopia and Yemen to Bolivia and Viet Nam millions of children are taking part in the sixth annual United Nations-backed Global Handwashing Day, driving home the message that the simple use of soap and water can slash highly preventable diarrhoeal diseases that kill 1,400 children under five every day.

“Washing hands before eating and after defecation drastically reduces the spread of diarrhoeal disease and has far reaching effects on the health and welfare of children and communities,” UN News quoted the global head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programmes, Sanjay Wijesekera, saying in a message marking the Day, whose theme this year is The Power Is in our Hands.

“The simple act of handwashing with soap is one of the most effective ways to save children’s lives.”

In Ethiopia, some 5 million children are participating in handwashing demonstrations and workshops around the country. In Yemen, Global Handwashing Day celebrations will take place in 3,300 schools, involving 1.4 million children. There is also a mass media campaign aimed at sensitizing the public around hand washing. Read more

Hold your breath… Water and Sanitation is about to go big in Ethiopia

Ethiopia needs more than 18,000 water professionals and technicians to implement the world’s largest sector-wide WASH Programme. Learn why you should be one of them!

By Dr. Samuel Godfrey, UNICEF Ethiopia Chief of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)


Wubalem Asmamaw, 17, makes the short 20min journey to fetch water for her family in Machakel district, Amhara region, northern Ethiopia (©UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Ose)

Meet Wubalem Asmamaw, a 17-year old girl who lives in Machakel district of the Amhara region in Northern Ethiopia. Five years ago and like millions of girls her age or younger up and down the country, Wubalem used to spend more than three hours a day travelling to and from a nearby dirty river just to fetch water for her family. She would often run late or even miss her classes at the nearby elementary school not only to spend the day looking for water, but also to stay home and care for ill parents, siblings, and/or neighbors.  Her parents, who make a living from subsistence farming in the lush teff and wheat growing fields of West Gojjam, spent their hard-earned income on buying medicine.

For those years at least, Wubalem lived a life of fear. Fear that the lush, but open fields on her way back from the river might unleash a thug who might abduct and force her to marriage at the age of 12. Fear that she would be thrown out of school for skipping classes. Fear that one of her parents or siblings might fall sick again from diarrhea and miss many days of work in the field. And most important of all, Wubalem feared that her dreams of finishing high school and then studying to become a doctor might end prematurely.

When I met Wubalem two months ago at a recently-rehabilitated water point in her village, there was no fear in her eyes. Thanks to a water point that was built by the support from the European Union and UNICEF, Wubalem’s commute to fetch water has been reduced to just 20 minutes.  Instead of pessimistic predictions about her future, Wubalem talks about the new things she learned in her biology classes and why no one in her family or her neighborhood has fallen ill from diarrhea in the last three years. Why? The water they now drink every day is not only safe, but is enough to wash hands before and after meals and keep the family toilet clean at all times. After scoring top grades in her class early this year, Wubalem is also already looking forward to the last two years of high school not with fear, but with the passion of a teenager who loves school!

Sounds like a fairytale, right? This story is what we in the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sector work for and use to remind ourselves why we do what we do. Our job is not just about constructing and/or helping rehabilitate urban and rural water and sanitation facilities in every village and district, but also see millions of empowered young boys and girls ready to continue Ethiopia’s hopes of becoming a middle income country by 2030. We envision a country of many Wubalems- healthy, educated, and economically-empowered citizens ready to lift millions of their compatriots out of poverty.

This week, we take our current reality closer to our vision when Ethiopia launches the world’s largest Water and Sanitation (WASH) Sector Wide Approach (SWAP). Termed ONE WASH and supported by UNICEF, the international donor lead for WASH in Ethiopia; this huge undertaking terms ONE WASH National Programme (OWNP) brings together four national ministries- Water and Energy (MWE), Health (FMOH), Education (MOE), and Finance and Economic Development (MoFed) – in an innovative approach designed to meet Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation (GTP) and universal access ambitions.

But what does this really mean?

Like UNICEF, there are many development partners and stakeholders which work in WASH. From the smallest Civil Society Organization (CSO) which collects enough money to build a small hand pump to the largest multilateral and development partners like UNICEF, the World Bank, DFID, African Development Bank (ADB), Government of Finland, JICA, and the European Union which fund million-birr community water schemes, every organization works in WASH, but in their own different ways. They have different priorities, different monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, different reporting requirements, and varying amounts of funding and financial reporting systems.

With ONE WASH, this will be no more. As the experience of countries like Mozambique where I previous worked as Chief of WASH for UNICEF suggests, combining efforts accelerates efforts to meet both GTP and the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG 7) which is providing universal access to water and sanitation. It also helps reduce duplication of funding, efforts, and priorities. With ONE WASH, all stakeholders work together to produce one plan, all contributing to a consolidated WASH account at federal, and producing one report.

And it does not stop there!

Successfully implementing ONE WASH requires over 18,000 additional skilled personnel of all types across the country. More contractors, water technicians, drilling companies, and higher education programmes with larger intake are all needed in the next 5-10 years.  Based on my experience in other countries, I see the WASH sector personnel in Ethiopia becoming a bit like what is currently happening to X-ray technicians at the moment- there simply aren’t enough of them! And those who currently work as X-ray technicians are increasingly demanding higher wages and flexible working hours so that they can take on additional part-time work.

Ethiopia needs more contractors with well-trained and sufficient workforce of technicians, engineers, and office staff to meet its lofty water and sanitation goals. It needs more students in universities tackling subjects like Water Engineering, Water Technology, Sanitation Engineering, and others. Given the demand and forseeable shortage of professionals, I see these fields competing and perhaps winning the battle to attract talented students straight of high school. And this is not just about installing water schemes in remote parts of the country. This affects everyone from your small town favorite plumber to the ambitious school or hotel that uses solar energy to power its water pump.

Rest assured, the WASH sector is the place to be in Ethiopia for the next 5-10 years.