Here in the U.S., if you have to go to the bathroom, chances are there’s a toilet just a few steps away. That’s not the case for some 4.5 billion people across the world who don’t have access to toilets and safe sanitation systems.
There are also pockets of extreme poverty in the U.S. where Americans don’t have adequate means to deal with sewage.
Inga Winkler of the Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights and an expert on sanitation will speak at Illinois State University at 7 p.m. Thursday on a public problem she says many government officials would rather not talk about: what to do with the waste from our bodily functions.
“It’s about urinating, about defecating. That is what is sanitation is about for every single one of us,” Winkler said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.
“And in addition to this private act of defecating and urinating, it’s what happens with feces and urine and excreta and wastewater afterward. It’s managing wastewater and making sure it is disposed of properly so it doesn’t end up in people’s drinking water, the environment and the food chain,” she added.
Winkler, who has worked at the United Nations, said the U.N. designated proper sanitation as a human right in 2010, but that it remains a persistent problem and low priority for many governments.
“The lack of sanitation is a problem all over the world. It doesn’t really matter where we look,” she said.
A U.N. report found an estimated 4.5 billion people do not have access to “safely managed” sanitation services that properly treat human waste. Of them, about 2.3 billion don’t have access to even a rudimentary toilet, Winkler said.
“The lack of privacy that girls and women and pretty much everyone experiences, having to walk to use a latrine for quite a while, having to wait to use it. Just imagine not having a toilet in your home and having to walk to somewhere at night, or having to ask your neighbor … 10 times a day,” Winkler said.
“It is so hard to imagine from our perspective sitting here in the U.S. in a relatively privileged environment to imagine not having access to sanitation,” she added.
Still, there are some extremely impoverished areas of the American south which are not connected to a modern sewage system. Winkler cited Lowndes County, Alabama. There, many poor residents are using crumbling septic tanks that empty in some cases into a pond, which overflows and backs up into lawns during heavy rains.
The lack of adequate sanitation services in that county has led to an unusually high rate of cases of hookworm and intestinal parasites.
“Basically what the situation in Alabama is a complex conundrum of soils that are really heavy, low income communities, huge racial disparities, and there is hardly any municipal infrastructure so many of these smaller dispersed communities are not connected to a sewage network,” Winkler said.
Instead, residents are expected to put in their own on-site septic tanks. What is required, however, is far more sophisticated septic systems which cost in the range of $26,000.
“People can’t afford to put those in,”
Residents will often build makeshift systems that use a pipe running from the bathroom to the outside to dispose of waste, “but doesn’t really it bring it very far from the home,” Winkler said.
“So we see (waste) accumulating in people’s yards, we see a lot of overflow. Imagine that combined with heavy rains, so what we see is people who live in a very contaminated environment,” she added.
That contamination can eventually make its way into the drinking water supply as well.
“From a human rights perspective, what is really required is to support people to do what needs to be done to put in these systems, including financial support so people can actually follow the regulations,” Winkler said.
She said there are similar infrastructure deficiencies in unincorporated parts of the central valley California in poor communities where primarily immigrants live.
“You see these issues repeatedly and the pattern that emerges is it often affects often minority communities, low income communities, and disenfranchised communities in the U.S.,” Winkler added.
Funding for these projects is not as big an obstacle to solving the problem, Winker said, as lack of political will.
“Sanitation is such a taboo topic, nobody really likes to talk about it,” she said.
“Imagine you are a minister or someone in public service in local government. What would you like your image associated with? Do you want to stand next to a school? Or would you like to have your name associated with putting in new latrines?” she asked.
“Once we start prioritizing these communities, there is usually a way to find the financing and there is certainly is a way to make the technology happen to overcome these obstacles,” she added.
“There are many studies that show in the long-term, once we invest in sanitation the returns are much, much higher than the initial investment.”
Winkler's talk on "Water and Sanitation in the 21st Century: A Human Rights Perspective on Domestic and International Challenges" will take place in the Prairie Room of the Bone Student Center on ISU's campus.
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