Texts or Toilets? More People In India Have Access to Cell Phones than Bathrooms

toilet rocks photo

Photo by mdiocuh galeals via Flickr CC

We know that access to cell phones is skyrocketing in developing nations, with areas in India and Africa simply leapfrogging from no phones to cell phones and skipping land lines altogether. It's a shift from no technology to new technology. Cell phones are simply becoming a basic necessity for daily living. But meanwhile another basic necessity is too often out of reach - access to sanitation services. A new report states that more people in India have access to a cell phone than to a toilet. Eurekalerts points us to a report from UN experts, which shows that roughly 366 million people - or 31% of the population - had access to improved sanitation in 200, while 545 million cell phones are now connected to service in India. About 45 of every 100 people can pick up a cell phone whenever they need. It's not the case when it comes to sanitary bathrooms, however.

The statistics are meant to highlight the lack of sanitation services in developing nations, and bring attention to a new 9-point prescription for achieving the world's Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for sanitation by 2015.

Worldwide, around 1.1 billion people defecate in the open, according to the report. Yet progress in creating access to toilets and sanitation lags far behind world MDG targets, even as mobile phone connections continue to a predicted 1 billion in India by 2015. When the statistics are set side by side, it's hard to ignore the seemingly backward priorities.

Zafar Adeel, Director of United Nations University's Canada-based think-tank for water, the Institute for Water, Environment and Health, states, "It is a tragic irony to think that in India, a country now wealthy enough that roughly half of the people own phones, about half cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet."

Adeel points out that education about the problems of poor sanitation is needed, and simply having a toilet can do more to save lives and improve health than any alternative investment.

The new report shows that the price of a new toilet is around $300, and an esitmated $358 billion is needed to reach the 2015 goal for worldwide sanitation. It might seem like a large investment, but consider the reduced health costs, reduced pollution, and globally raised standard of living:

"The world can expect, however, a return of between $3 and $34 for every dollar spent on sanitation, realized through reduced poverty and health costs and higher productivity -- an economic and humanitarian opportunity of historic proportions," adds Dr. Adeel, who also serves as chair of UN-Water, a coordinating body for water-related work at 27 UN agencies and their many global partners.

While progress is being made, the World Health Organization and UNICEF predict that we will probably still be short of the goal, with 2.7 billion people lacking access to sanitation in 5 years. While toilets are not as interesting or spotlighted as cell phones and the communication power of texting, the need to talk about the subject is dire.

"This report notes cultural taboos surround this issue in some countries, preventing progress," says Zafar Adeel, Director of UNU-INWEH. "Anyone who shirks the topic as repugnant, minimizes it as undignified, or considers unworthy those in need should let others take over for the sake of 1.5 million children and countless others killed each year by contaminated water and unhealthy sanitation."

To reach the goal, the report makes 9 recommendations, including making sanitation a primary focus in water management talks, empowerment around sanitation needs in communities, redefining "acceptable" sanitation access, and designing new business models for dealing with the water-sanitation-hygene triangle, among others.

Says report co-author Corinne Shuster-Wallace of UNU-INWEH: "Sanitation for all is not only achievable, but necessary. There is a moral, civil, political and economic need to bring adequate sanitation to the global population."

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