05/31/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Many Toilet Lines Have No End

Last Tuesday, school children and water advocates alike gathered on Capitol Hill to form the 'World's Longest Toilet Queue.' This demonstration showed solidarity with those who have no access to clean water or adequate sanitation and told Congress that they must increase resources to solve the global water crisis. The 10 toilets temporarily lined up in a park outside the Capitol building provided a good photo-op background, but in reality, there are toilets around the world that no one would want to wait in line for on any day of the week. Toilets line this one:


This makeshift toilet and washroom is located in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. In the summer of 2008, I visited Kibera looking specifically at the water and sanitation work there. Sadly, I highly doubt things are any different now. With an estimate population of 1 million on 350 acres, Kibera accounts for less than 1 percent of Nairobi's total area, but holds more than a quarter of the city's population -- making it the biggest slum in Africa and one of the biggest in the world. Erected from mud, sticks, and aluminum siding, this latrine was built right against the family's shack. The right side of the structure is the toilet and the left side the washroom. The ground of Kibera is literally composed of garbage - human refuse, rubbish, soot, and dust are everywhere - but the stench that was released when this toilet's door opened overpowered even the constant pungent smells of Kibera. Pieces of food and unidentifiable rubbish litter the toilet's floor. There is no drainage. There is no light source. Approximately three feet square and five feet high, the average person cannot stand upright. Ideally the user brings in a can or plastic bag to relieve themselves in, but that is if they can find one that day. Except for a muddier floor due to water residue, the washroom is identical to the toilet. This latrine belongs to a family of seven (the average household size in Kibera), their shack is a single room not even eight by 10 feet, and they are considered fortunate to have this bathroom. And the sad truth is they are lucky to have this, in essence a structure to afford them some privacy.

While there are a few pay bathrooms in Kibera, few residents can afford the less than one cent it costs to use it once a day, let alone the average 8 times a day humans go to the bathroom. Most residents use the open sewage system, the ditches that run alongside the alleyways and don't funnel anywhere, or "flying toilets." A flying toilet is a plastic bag that used for defecation and then discarded by being thrown into the air, but in a densely populated area like Kibera where no land goes unused, the flying toilets can only land on roofs where either they burst on impact or gather and attract flies. Kibera is known for them. And since diarrheal diseases related to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene are among the world's most deadly public health problems, it's not surprising that Kibera is one of the deadliest places on earth.

Yet just yards from this toilet, innovation and progress are being made, as the Kenya Water for Health Organisation (KWAHO), is using solar water disinfection to bring clean water to the community. The group takes the contaminated water the slum residents have access to, fills up recycled clear and blue two liter water bottles, and then puts them on aluminum racks or roofs for six hours in sunny weather or for two days when it is cloudy. The solar rays clean the water for drinking, washing hands, and normal use. KWAHO collects the water bottles from local Nairobi hotels, and although it's hard to get a household to buy in, once they do, their neighbors eagerly follow. And as the KWAHO project shows, even in the most inhumane of circumstances there is hope and reason to keep fighting to make things better.

solar water disinfection

World Water Day is a great annual effort to bring awareness to the 2.6 billion, yes BILLION, people who still lack access to adequate sanitation but when the day's events end, it is still important to keep these people in mind. The global water, sanitation and hygiene crisis is solvable with solutions that are available today. Solutions that include hand-dug wells, harvesting rainwater to use for drinking, protecting springs, water filtering and water purification and building safe latrines.