The toilet is one of the most underrated inventions. In rich countries, most people take private restrooms for granted. However, billions of people do not have access to toilets or latrines. That has serious health consequences. Thankfully, fewer and fewer people lack access.
Restrooms come in all shapes and sizes, but people in wealthier nations enjoy the most improved facilities available. The definition of an “improved” sanitation facility, according to UNICEF, is “one that hygienically separates human excreta from human contact.” This includes flush toilets, piped sewer systems, septic tanks, facilities that flush to pit latrines, ventilated improved pit latrines, pit latrines with slabs, and composting toilets. “Unimproved” sanitation includes facilities that flush to or near a household environment, pit latrines without slabs, buckets, hanging toilets or latrines, shared sanitation facilities, and bushes or fields.
While essentially all Americans enjoy access to the most modern and improved sanitation facilities, over two billion people worldwide still lack access.
Lack of improved sanitation is connected to the transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio. Diarrhea, for example, was responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million children under the age of 5 in 2012. On average, diarrhea kills over 800 children under the age of 5 die every day.
Thankfully, there is good news. Since 1990, about 2 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation, while those resorting to unhygienic practices dropped from 24 percent to 14 percent globally between 1990 and 2012. Nearly half the human population in 1990 had no improved sanitation. That share dropped to about a third in 2015, as millions of people have risen out of poverty thanks to the beneficial effects of market exchange and innovation. There are more nations today that have 90 percent of the population using improved sanitation facilities and fewer nations where less than 50 percent of the populations use them.
There is also a growing trend of companies and entrepreneurs creating innovative sanitation devices for use as improvised facilities. For instance, Mosan Mobile Sanitation provides sanitation services by offering households reusable dry toilets and a collector that takes the excreta for compost, anaerobic digestion, and fuel-briquettes. Another example is Peepoole, a company that has created a “personal, single-use, self-sanitizing, fully biodegradable toilet” bag that prevents contamination in the ecosystem. This improvised toilet not only is a cheap alternative to having a toilet in the home, but also turns out fertilizer.
As poverty continues to decline, more and more people will hopefully one day be able to take toilets for granted. In the meantime, entrepreneurs are offering cheap solutions to these problems to help poor communities transition to modern day restrooms.
Chelsea Follett is the managing editor of HumanProgress.org.