Rotary International’s membership magazine The Rotarian has featured many provocative humanitarian concerns on its cover in the past few years, but it hit a new mark in the January  issue.
The article by Rose George tells in excruciating detail what it’s like in places where there is literally nowhere to do what human beings do several times a day except the side of the road or beside a tree in the woods. This “problem no one wants to talk about” is actually one of the world’s major health problems, she argues, affecting 2.6 billion people who have no sanitary toilets.
Why? Because the bacteria in human feces left out in the open are carried about on hands and feet into living spaces. “It finds its way into food and drink, with desperate consequences,” George writes. “Diarrhea — 90 percent of which is caused by contaminated food or water — kills up to two million people a year, most of them children.”
Diarrhea kills more children under age 5 than AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria. “In graphic terms,” she explains, “diarrhea’s death toll is equivalent to two jumbo jets full of children dying every four hours.”
Even so, the taboo nature of the topic and cultural differences that prevent uneducated people from accepting the convenience of a sanitary toilet are tough to break through. George notes that the framers of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals included sanitation in the goals with reluctance, even though preventing diarrhea would enhance the eagerly embraced goals of universal primary education, eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and reducing child mortality.
Money and government concern won’t solve the problem alone, however. George tells of a failed attempt by the Indian government to introduce new sanitary latrines in the 1980s. They went unused “at least for their intended purpose,” she writes. “Maybe because they were nicer than people’s houses, so they were turned into extra storage spaces or temples.” She explains that installing new “hardware” has to be accompanied with “software”: human psychology and language to get people to embrace the sanitary toilet and abandon the old ways.
Rotary Clubs have been involved in public sanitation almost since the first club was established by Paul Harris in Chicago in 1905. The club’s very first public service project in 1907 was building “comfort stations” outside Chicago’s City Hall. Many clubs have supported international sanitation projects, the most successful of which are done in partnership with local leaders.
[The Rotary Foundation has granted more than US$4.7 million for water and sanitation projects over the past five years. An accompanying article by Jenny Llakmani, describes some of Rotary International’s sanitation projects and the technology options used].
We expect this cover article will get lots of Rotary Clubs talking about sanitation projects in remote corners of the world. George suggests enlisting celebrities “who happily promote a clean and shiny water faucet in a dusty village, with a photogenic child in tow, but don’t bother to take a few steps over to the latrine that has enabled that child to go back to school and prolonged her life.”
Need a new cause, Brad and Angelina? Or how about Tiger Woods? After all, he’s taking a break from golf and needs to rehabilitate his reputation.
Seriously, we hope this provocative Rotarian cover story brings attention to an uncomfortable subject that sorely needs addressing. Think about it. If the indoor toilet in your home or place of work mysteriously disappeared, where would you go?
Source: Independent Mail, 30 Dec 2009