Why spending a penny on toilets is more important than you realise - WaterAid

Posted On: 
30th October 2018

As Philip Hammond joked, the only part of the UK budget not ‘leaked’ yesterday was a move to eliminate business taxation rates on owners of public toilets, says Tim Wainwright, Chief Executive, WaterAid.

The British Toilet Association has estimated that here in the UK, 40% of public toilets have disappeared in the past decade.
Credit: 
PA Images

The Chancellor’s move to spend more than a penny on public toilets is essential recognition that toilets are a vital public good. Around the world 2.3 billion people are being denied their basic human right to sanitation – and we need to see money for these critical services unblocked everywhere, for everyone.

Let’s face it: a toilet is something taken for granted until you need one and can’t find one. The British Toilet Association has estimated that here in the UK, 40% of public toilets have disappeared in the past decade. For older people or disabled people and their carers, and parents of small children, this is making life immeasurably more difficult. It’s hard to keep the high streets alive if shoppers are having to cut trips short for fear of being caught short. It’s an issue of dignity and of health, wherever you are in the world.

For too many people in the developing world, the lack of access to a decent, private toilet is life-threatening: contaminated water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene cause the deaths from diarrhoea of 289,000 children under five each year. This is nearly 800 children a day, or a child every two minutes.

Many more people are affected when a toilet isn’t available – for example women who avoid eating or drinking because they can’t access a toilet during their working day, workplaces where productivity is hampered by sickness linked to their unhygienic conditions, and children left physically and mentally stunted by repeated bouts of diarrhoea caused by living in communities with poor sanitation.

The UK’s own history shows that sustained investment in sanitation and the promotion of hygiene practices transformed the health of people across the UK, saving millions of lives and creating a more productive workforce. Within 10 years of the introduction of Bazelgette’s proper sewerage system in London in 1870, infant mortality was reduced by 29%.

The UK is well-placed to become a global leader on water and sanitation, and to galvanise global progress. But we can be more ambitious.

We are relieved that the government is honouring the UK’s international and legal commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance. UK aid has made a significant contribution to improving water, sanitation and hygiene in low-income countries. By reaching over 60 million people with these vital services between 2011 and 2015, the UK aid budget has contributed to improved health, including reductions in infant diarrhoea; improvements in school attendance and improved gender equality by reducing the time that women spend fetching water.

This is part of the UK’s role in delivering on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 6 to ensure access to clean water and decent household toilets for all by 2030. At WaterAid, we calculated how long it would take for various countries to achieve this goal, and we were shocked at the results. Some countries are centuries removed from achieving universal access to just basic water and sanitation; the UN targets are aimed beyond those basic services.

Only 2% of the UK’s bilateral aid budget is invested in water, sanitation and hygiene. This should be increased, to bring it into line with other key areas of development. Currently education receives 7%, and health 13%. Both those sectors of course need safe water, sanitation and hygiene to function at an acceptable level – yet one third of both schools and health care centres around the world do not have running water. We hope that this need for more investment in water, sanitation and hygiene is reflected in the Department for International Development’s imminent spending review.

Spending a penny delivers great value for money – every pound spent on water, sanitation and hygiene delivers at least £4 return in increased productivity. Decent toilets create a cleaner and healthier environment, help keep children in school, and contribute to healthier and more prosperous communities. That is budget relief which everyone can get behind.