11/19/2013 09:31 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

When It Comes to Health and Dignity, There Is Nothing More Powerful Than a Toilet

Like so many others, I have spent the last days glued to the news and weather forecasts, watching helplessly as Typhoon Haiyan crashed in on the Philippines with surreal force and destruction. I spent five years working in the Philippines, and know many of the affected islands intimately. My heart reaches out to all of those who have been affected, knowing that the Philippine community is dealing with the tragedy with incredible courage.

In the Philippines and elsewhere, I know all too well that what often follows the initial disaster is an acute concern about food, water, sanitation and the spread of disease. I am not surprised by reports of survivors so desperate for something to drink that they dig up whatever water pipes can be found -- not least because anyone one of us would surely do the same.

Neither am I surprised by already exhausted medical staff who say that they soon expect to become inundated by survivors beleaguered by pneumonia, dehydration, diarrhea and infections that are directly related to the lack of clean water, soap and toilets. Across the board, and especially emergencies, access to clean water and sanitation can mean the difference between life and death.

Twelve years ago, when November 19 was first established as World Toilet Day, people laughed. It sounded funny to talk about toilets, much less create an international day of commemoration around it. But the fact is, one in three people globally do not have access to a toilet. The lack of sanitation is an acute public health issue with serious consequences -- and not only when disaster strikes.

This year, for the first time, World Toilet Day has been officially recognized by the United Nations General Assembly. As my colleague Lisa Schechtman describes in the blog "3 reasons why World Toilet Day matters," endorsement by the UN gives us momentum for ensuring that toilets and sanitation are given the political priority that they demand. None too soon, leaders are beginning to pay attention to the facts: the lack of access to sanitation costs the world $260 billion each year in health and productivity, while 2000 young kids die every day from preventable diseases directly related to poor sanitation and the lack of clean water.

In a world where so many things are beyond our control, the toilet stands as a powerful force for saving and improving lives. What's needed now is a critical mass of governments, businesses, investors, engineers, community leaders and civil society organizations like WaterAid to pick up and champion the cause.

Thankfully, we are already headed well down that road. As part of World Toilet Day commemorations this year, WaterAid has joined together with the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council and Unilever's leading household cleaning brand, Domestos, to release an important new report called We can't wait. Not only does the report detail the vital role of toilets in boosting women's health, it also makes the case for how strong public-private partnerships around sanitation can drastically improve the health and prosperity of women worldwide.

On a more light-hearted note, audiences young and old alike are getting into the spirit of World Toilet Day with the help of WaterAid's singing animated toilet, Louie the Loo. It may sound ridiculous to ask whether you've thanked your toilet today, but when it comes to health and dignity, each of us has a lot to thank our toilets for.

Louie was right when he warbled: "I am a lifesaver, and that is not a lie...". When it comes to the health of our families and communities in times of disaster and every day, there is nothing more powerful than clean water and a toilet.