Raising awareness of needs for safe sanitation

Winchester is a magnet for tourists. Most of them arrive by coach in The Broadway, a stone’s throw or two from my house. As they step down to the pavement and look up, the first thing they see is….. the Public Conveniences, neatly coinciding with the first thing on their mind.

This opportunity for instant gratification may be a stroke of genius in urban planning, but alas functionality has failed to match orientation. A visit from inspectors of the British Toilet Association provided fodder for a BBC report and hastened the City’s resolve to rebuild the premises.

The inspectors were thorough in their work. Councillors have been obliged to reassure local tourism managers that “the quality of the toilet paper supplied will be improved.” Costs have soared from £150,000 to £250,000. The site will be closed for several months to allow every care to be taken.

I have to take a deep breath at this point. As a writer on the global divide, how should I interpret this fine example of the spiral of diminishing returns that rich countries are happy to indulge? – of public investment in sanitation prompted as much by profit as health?

Should I press the guilt button and point out that the lack of safe sanitation in poor countries leads to the deaths of 1.5 million children each year? Or observe that Nepal has to build 15,000 new latrines every month until 2015 to meet its Millennium Goal? Or that the $100 billion estimate to achieve the 2015 sanitation Goal for all countries is less than half of the US government’s recent capital handout to a few rotten banks?

These comparisons are the sort of thing that you will read in press releases from aid agencies and campaigning groups. But are they helpful? It’s futile to deride the drive for higher standards in UK public infrastructure, nor can we propose that Winchester City Council sends the £250,000 to Nepal.

I don’t have the answer to this question although I personally now rarely use the “deaths of children every minute” mantra. Education is our best hope. Awareness of the gulf between rich and poor must ultimately undermine the political and economic apparatus that has created it. A utopian view perhaps but it’s our motive for publishing OneWorld Guides and for persuading as many people as possible to read them.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK