Pure 'Insanitation': 200,000 Children Die Each Year Because India Doesn't Have Enough Toilets

More than 650 million people in this nation practice open defecation.

A child looks on from his cardboard bed in a garbage-strewn slum in New Delhi. (Photo: Tengku Bahar/AFP/Getty Images)


Mar 21, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Mary Slosson has written for Reuters, The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. She is a graduate of USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.

If you care about saving the lives of 200,000 children each year, you’ll hear us out over the next three weeks as we wade into a topic that most of us over the age of six don’t want to talk about all that much: poop.

While the vast majority of Americans relieve themselves in a toilet connected to a septic or sewer system, this luxury isn’t available to 40 percent of the world’s population. About 2.5 billion people lack access to proper sanitation facilities, meaning they carry out their very private business in very public settings like streets or fields. In India the problem is especially rampant, with 650 million people forced to practice open defecation.

With so many people going to the bathroom—so to speak—outdoors, it’s difficult for them and others to avoid ingesting microbial-contaminated fecal matter, mostly because it seeps into groundwater. This can lead to diarrhea, which, because of the attendant problem of a lack of access to health care, killed 200,000 children in India in 2012 alone. There's also a related public safety issue: Women waiting until after dark to take care of their business outside the home often become victims of violent crime.

To flush away this foul problem, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2011 launched the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. The contest invites designers to devise low-cost toilets that capture and process human waste without piped water, sewers, or electrical connections and transform it into useful resources, such as fertilizer.

The Reinvent the Toilet Fair: India, a showcase of 16 prototypes of next-gen toilets, is set for March 22 in New Delhi, and our colleagues at TakePart Live will be there in production on a special hour-long episode set to air April 10 on Pivot.

In the run-up to that episode, we will be bringing you a series of articles, galleries, and memes that probe the medical, financial, environmental, and cultural fallout that occurs in a nation where half the people don’t have access to a toilet. We’ll take a closer look at No Toilet, No Bride, a social movement founded in 2011 that encourages Indian women to marry only men whose homes have a toilet. The idea is to get men to make an investment that will keep women safer.

We’re calling our series "Insanitation." Why? Because it is full-on crazy that more people own cell phones in India than have access to a latrine.

Brace yourself for a whole lot of shit talking. It may make you cringe, but it makes others curl up and die. So pay attention, take action, and read on.

Global health and development coverage on TakePart is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.