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Why Toilets Are Important

By Janeen K. Grohsmeyer

When you go camping, what do you miss most? Electricity? Or toilets?

Only a hundred years or so ago, people didn't have either one. There were no microwave ovens or toasters. There were no light bulbs. You couldn't just flip a switch or push a button to make things happen. For thousands and thousands of years, whenever people wanted heat they had to make a fire. Whenever people wanted light, they had to burn a wax candle or an oil lamp or just wait for the sun to rise.

And for thousands and thousands or years, there were no sinks with hot and cold running water or flush toilets in houses. You couldn't just turn on a faucet or hold down a handle to make water move. Whenever people needed water, they had to get a wooden bucket or a heavy clay jar and walk to a river or a spring or a well and then carry the water back home.

And whenever people needed to use the toilet—they couldn't. There was no such thing as a toilet. Instead, they had to dig a hole or find a tree. Some people walked to the river and relieved themselves there. At night, people didn't want to go outside in the dark, so they used a bucket or a pot then emptied it in the morning. And where did they empty it? They dug a hole or found a tree or took it to the river.

People who traveled a lot just dug a small hole whenever they needed one. But people who lived in one place and had a house usually dug a deep hole. They put a seat over it, and sometimes even built a little house around it, to keep the rain off and give people privacy. The little house was called the outhouse.

For thousands and thousands of years, people have been digging holes. And for thousands and thousands of years, there was no such thing as toilet paper. Ancient Romans used scraps of wool or sponges on a stick to clean themselves. In Hawaii , people used fibers from coconut shells. Rich people in France used lace. On farms, people used corncobs and handfuls of hay. In the desert, people used sand. In the summer, people used leaves. In the winter, people used moss and snow.

A few hundred years ago, people learned how to make paper cheaply. Newspapers and almanacs became very popular, and not just for reading. The Sears Roebuck catalog full of large, lightweight pages hung in a place of honor in many an outhouse. Finally, in 1877, toilet paper on a roll with easy tear-off sheets was invented.

People had also been busy inventing toilets that could flush. Queen Elizabeth I of England had an early model four hundred years ago. About two hundred years ago, Josiah Wedgewood, who made beautiful porcelain dishes, also made beautiful porcelain toilets. They were very pretty, but they were expensive and houses didn't have running water anyway, so almost everyone kept using chamber pots at night and outhouses during the day. Or, they dug a hole or found a tree or went to a river.

About a hundred and fifty years ago, people started putting water pipes in their cities and building sewage treatment plants to make the toilet water clean again.

More and more people started having bathrooms with running water in their houses. This was amazing! They could take a hot bath, just by turning on a faucet. They didn't have to heat water on the stove and carry it in buckets to the tub, and then empty the tub with buckets when they were done.

They could flush the toilet. They didn't have to dig holes or empty chamber pots every day and scrub them clean.

They could use toilet paper from a roll. They didn't have to use corncobs or coconut fibers or rip pages out of an old book.

They could wash their hands in a sink, and not just with cold water. There was hot water, too!

This may not sound so amazing to you. Most of us have grown up living in houses that have bathrooms. We think flushable toilets and soft toilet paper and bathtubs and sinks with clean water where we can wash our hands, and even take a drink, are normal. We think everyone has them.

But everyone doesn't.

Two and a half billion people don't have access to a toilet, not even the port-a-potty kind. That's about one-third of the people on the planet. One-third of us are still digging a hole or finding a tree or going to the river. Or, using plastic bags. One-third of us do not have toilet paper, and are still using leaves or sand or snow.

Of course, for thousands and thousands of years, that's what everyone did. Not having a toilet is not new.

But something is new: the number of people—two and a half billion people. For all those thousands and thousands of years, there weren't very many people. In a country village, there's plenty of room to dig more holes. When your tribe is the only group who uses the river for twenty miles, the river can clean itself. There's plenty of time for everything to decompose back into water and earth. In a great forest, there are plenty of trees. Being used as a bathroom once in a while is not going to hurt too many trees too much.

But in a big city, there are more people than there are trees. There's no room for each person to dig holes, maybe not even one. The riverbank is crowded and there's no privacy, not even outhouses. But in a big city where people do not have toilets, the river is where the running water can be found. The river becomes the bathroom.

And that is not healthy.

After all, human waste is what our bodies are getting rid of. It's not healthy to put it back into our bodies. We all know we should wash our hands after we go to the bathroom. We all know that toilet water isn't safe to drink. That water has germs in it. That's what sewage treatment does—clean the water before we use it again.

But the two and a half billion people who live without toilets don't have a way to clean the water. Human waste goes into the water, and that's the only water they have. It's the only water they have to wash their hands. It's the only water they have to cook with. And it's the only water they have to drink.

People get sick from that water. People die from that water. Diseases like diarrhea, dysentery and cholera kill almost two million children every year. Five thousand children die, every single day, because people don't have toilets.

Since 2001, the World Toilet Organization has been working to change that. They want every person to have access to a toilet. They want every person to have water to drink and wash with that isn't full of germs. They want life to be better for everyone.

They've even created World Toilet Day. On November 19th, the World Toilet Organization works to help people all over the world learn how important toilets are.

So the next time you use a bathroom, take a moment to admire the soft toilet paper, the hot and cold running water in the sink and the flushable toilet. Take a moment to think about the two and a half billion people on the planet who don't have toilet paper or sinks or toilets of any kind.

Take a moment to think about what you could do to help change that.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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