"Knowledge of history and progress of technology may contribute to better understanding of basic human needs and inspire new developments in the field."
Source: Yannopoulos et al (2017), "History of sanitation and hygiene technologies in the Hellenic world", Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development, v07.2.
Toilets are not a new thing to the world, but their journey isn't always that straightforward, either.
Explore the timeline to see how sometimes humans go forward, and then backward, and then forward again.
On your right is a timeline with important milestones that have led the world to its current toilet state. Scroll backward through time to learn more.
Throughout time there have been several myths and cultural lore around the workings of the toilet. There have been gods, goddesses, demons, ghosts, and other magical figures related to the culture of the toilet.
Below are several examples of these mythical creatures. Click to get more details.
Babylonian toilet demon
Judeo-Christian demon who sits on a toilet throne
Islamic demon that often inhabits dirty toilets
Chinese toilet goddess
Japanese demon of bathroom filth
Korean toilet goddess
Japanese toilet god
Ancient Roman goddess of the sewer
Ancient Roman god of dung
The Current Sanitation Situation
How many people in the world need access to safe water and adequate sanitation?
According to the JMP in 2017, about 30% of people in the world do not use basic, safely-managed water services; 60% of people in the world do not use basic, safely-managed sanitation services. This means that water and sanitation services available to an overwhelming number of people in the world are not easily accessible or may be broken or poorly maintained.
Source: JMP 2017
Where in the world is there the most need right now?
According to the JMP, the areas with the lowest levels of access to water and sanitation are in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.
Source: JMP 2017
Why don't people have access to toilets?
• They don't have enough room to accommodate both their homes and a toilet
• They live somewhere – like a mountain top, village or lake – where it is difficult to build a toilet
• The communities have certain taboos about owning or using a toilet
• Their beliefs and customs dictate where and how to go to the bathroom
• They don't have enough money to build and maintain a toilet
• There are no companies in the area who produce and sell toilets
Why don't people have access to safe drinking water?
• The area does not have enough fresh drinking water to accommodate the number of people living there
• Naturally-occurring water sources are contaminated with toxins like arsenic and E. coli
• Without access to toilets, people are forced to go outside. This usually means they are going to the bathroom in the water sources (lakes, rivers) and therefore contaminating them, or they are going in an area that will eventually get washed into the waterways
• There is a drought preventing water sources from being rejuvenated quickly enough for people to use
• The owner of the water source is not willing to share with those who need it
• The water is managed by an organization that charges unaffordable rates
• The water source is not easily accessible – it’s often too far away or across dangerous terrain
How long did it take for the developed world to get access to these things?
What are the biggest challenges for getting people safe drinking water and toilets?
Population growth is one of the biggest challenges for improving access all over the world. Because, despite efforts to improve access to sanitation, the population is growing so fast, It is hard to keep up.
Another challenge is climate change. With climate patterns changing and certain areas having increased cases of drought or rain, people are struggling to get access to clean water and working sanitation systems. Rain can flood toilets and contaminate water. Droughts reduce the water levels and make it hard to clean oneself after going to the bathroom.
Lack of resources is another challenge. Those working in water and sanitation don't have the funds to get people access to water and toilets quickly or easily.
Source: USA CDC
Source: National Geographic
Source: WaterAid Blog
Source: GLAAS 2017 Report
What is a taboo? At FLUSH, "taboo" means something that is socially unacceptable - either in action or in talking about it. Taboo things are not necessarily enforced by law.
There are different reasons why cultures are reluctant to change their habits and behaviors with water and sanitation. Some of them are unique.
Below is a map with different taboos that exist in different areas of the world. Click on a point to learn more.
WASH Sector Fails
Over the years, the WASH sector faces some challenges in getting people access to clean drinking water and safe toilets. At FLUSH, we have distilled some of the key failures and misconceptions we have witnessed in the sector that need to change.
"If they build it, they will come"
Building toilets for people and then leaving the scene has been a historically common way people in the world of water & sanitation have tried to improve access to sanitation.
Read more: The Last Taboo: (by Black & Fawcett)
Read more: Toilets & Taps Aren't Enough (by Casey & Crichton-Smith)
"Let's have a marathon training event"
Training people with the skills to help others get access to clean water and sanitation takes time. Many training sessions are crammed into one or two 6-8 hour days. As a result, people don't remember what they were taught and are not confident in using the skills they just learned.
Read more: NGO Partnerships and Capacity Development in the WASH Sector (by Willetts et al)
Read more: Capacity Building in Cambodia’s Rural Local Governments for the Sanitation Market (by Worsham et al)
"Isn't there some silver bullet..."
What may be a successful solution for one community, may not necessarily work for another. Different terrains require different toilet structures and cultural differences must be accounted for in order for a system to prosper.
"Surely, we can fix this problem in 3 years..."
When you consider the significant amount time needed to set up and dismantle a project, there is very little time left to actually examine, analyze and execute all that is necessary to ensure the project is a success. Furthermore, expecting to change customs that have existed for generations in just a few short years can be unrealistic. Often times, slippage occurs and despite the best efforts of those involved, people go right back to their old ways.
"Let's talk to the male leaders of this community for solutions..."
Sure, talking to the leaders about a sensitive topic like toilets is important, but often times the best people to talk to are the ones with the most to lose without access to clean water and toilets – the women, the disabled, the elderly, and the vulnerable. Including these groups in the project planning is crucial to ensuring its success.
Note: Thanks to the CS WASH Fund for hosting resources.
You'd be surprised by how neat some of the initiatives some people have taken (with some amount of success) to improve the status of water, sanitation, and hygiene. Below is a map of some of these initiatives that have been tried out, including years, details, and often links. Click on a point to learn more.