Why You Should Give a Crap About World Toilet Day

Image: toiletday.com

Image: toiletday.com

Nov. 19, 2015, marks “World Toilet Day,” which may sound like some sort of a punchline to people who have lived their lives with easy access to modern sanitation, taking it for granted. But in the world at large, one in three people — about 2.4 billion spread throughout many countries — lacks a toilet or latrine. The resulting “open defecation” compromises human health, dignity and security, the environment, and social and economic development, the United Nations says.

To state a few related examples, poor or absent sanitation spreads diarrhoeal diseases, a leading cause of death in children. It keeps large numbers of girls out of school, depriving them of an education. It also makes women and girls vulnerable to attack as they go outside to “go to the bathroom” (where there is no such room, and very little privacy).

“We have a moral imperative to end open defecation and a duty to ensure women and girls are not at risk of assault and rape simply because they lack a sanitation facility,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his message for World Toilet Day, which focuses this year on the theme of “Equality, Dignity and the Link Between Gender-Based Violence and Sanitation.”

After the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council affirmed the human right to water and sanitation in 2010, people first questioned whether they should be called out separately or remain embedded in other human rights in which they play a role, such as the rights to a healthy environment and an adequate standard of living. Interested parties continue to discuss whether water and sanitation should be one right or two. They’re clearly related in many ways, but each sometimes requires — and deserves — separate consideration. How to do this, especially in the context of the new Sustainable Development Goals adopted at the UN in September, is an ongoing question. Goal 6 currently keeps the two together.

While the human right to water has become a hot-button issue due to increased alarm over scarcity and threats of conflict, sanitation has grabbed fewer headlines and may be relegated to the status of a “poor cousin,” to borrow a phrase from Inga T. Winkler, a scholar in residence at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the New York University School of Law. I was fortunate enough recently to attend a forum where she discussed her  forthcoming academic paper outlining the evolution of the human right to water and sanitation, as well as the case for separation. Winkler is a prominent scholar in the human right to water and sanitation, having authored a seminal book on the subject and served as a legal advisor to the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque.

Open defecation and other problems of poor sanitation aren’t easy to talk about, but overcoming taboos through open discussion is crucial to making practical changes that save lives and help realize the human right to sanitation worldwide.

Image: toiletday.com

Image: toiletday.com

Read more:

Seven Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the State of the World’s Toilets – WaterAid UK

World Toilet Day: More Important Than It Sounds – Huffington Post United Kingdom

Much Ado About the Loo, on World Toilet Day  – New Straits Times Online

#WECANTWAIT campaign  – UN-Water

World Toilet Day – UN.org

WorldToilet.org  and UN World Toilet Day on Twitter: @worldtoiletday

Related posts: 

17 Sustainable Development Goals Adopted at the United Nations

World Water Day: UN World Water Development Report Warns of Global Crisis by 2030

If You Could Advise the UN on Water, What Would You Say?

Water’s Place Among Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Human Right(s) to Water and Sanitation, Human rights, United Nations, Wastewater Treatment, Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

17 Sustainable Development Goals Adopted at the United Nations


“There is no ‘Plan B’ because we do not have a ‘Planet B.’ We have to work and galvanize our action.” – UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon

Read more:

Sustainable Development Goals – United Nations

Five Key Quotes from the Sustainable Development Goals Summit – UN Dispatch

Related posts:

World Water Day: UN World Water Development Report Warns of Global Crisis by 2030

If You Could Advise the UN on Water, What Would You Say?

Water’s Place Among Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals

At the Point of ‘Peak Water,’ Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter

UNICEF Says Put Down Your Cell Phone for a Few Minutes to Help Kids Get Water

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights

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September 25, 2015 · 8:07 pm

In the Media: Big Agriculture’s Unsustainable Use of Groundwater


Thanks, Vice Media, for covering California agriculture and its massive and unsustainable use of groundwater during the state’s worst drought in, reportedly, 1,200 years. Watch the video. Or click on other posts, below.

Imagine you had a giant tank full of clean water, but it was running dangerously low. Imagine you knew it would take thousands of years, or more, to replenish that tank. How careful would you be with that faucet? Well, somebody’s leaving it running.

Related posts:

Curtailing Big Ag’s Water Use in California

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater

Understanding Water Crises: New Resources Added


The At the Waterline blog’s Water Resources page has been updated with 12 new additions in the past few weeks, for a total of 83 links to sources of information and action on issues related to freshwater scarcity.

Check out the new additions:

aquaNOW.info: the World’s Water Data Engine

The CEO Water Mandate

Ceres: Mobilising Business Leadership or a Sustainable World (Issues: Water Issues)

>>> Ceres: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks (full report)

FAN: Freshwater Action Network

The Guardian: Access to clean water and sanitation around the world – mapped

LLoyd’s 360 Risk Insight: Global Water Scarcity, Risks and Challenges for Business

Water Defense

The Solutions Project (U.S. state plans for 100% clean, renewable energy)

WaterLex: Publications*

World Health Organisation (WHO): Health Topics: Water

WHO Programmes: Water Sanitation Health

(*Note: The international public-interest development organization WaterLex employs me as its head of communications. )


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Filed under Blog Changes and Updates, Climate Change, Conservation, Human rights, Law, NGOs, Research, Science, Sustainability, Technology, United Nations, Water Resources

Curtailing Big Ag’s Water Use in California

Image: iStockPhoto.com

When drought-struck California moved to curb consumers’ use of water, I wrote about agriculture’s massive and under-regulated use of water. On Friday the state moved to cut many farmers’ use of water, in terms of some of the older rights-holders who divert water from Central Valley rivers and streams. In spring, cuts were made to thousands of junior rights holders’ usage, including many growers. This is more than the state did when it curtailed Big Ag’s water use nearly 40 years ago, in 1977, the last time it made such a move. What it hasn’t done is to move strongly to curtail the industry’s waste of the water it’s allocated to use, which is to say …  it’s allowed to use most of it (about 80 percent).

Just for “fun,” here’s an annoyingly educational reminder that most Americans make the California drought worse by eating the food grown there. That’s not to say they should forego the glorious bounty and cramp the world’s 8th largest economy, but some would argue just that, more or less. Let’s say that some of Cali’s major crops — rice, almonds, avocados — should be grown where there is ample water because they need so damn much of it. Maybe not so much compared to raising beef, but still — a lot.

Another not-fun thing: Sucking up the groundwater is making the surface of California sink faster than ever before, and it’s going to cost a lot of money as infrastructure like bridges and roads suffers damage.

Related post:

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

Read more:

Report: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks – Ceres (full report)

California Cuts Farmers’ Share of Scant Water – The New York Times

California Move to Restrict Water Pumping by Pre-1914 Rights HoldersLos Angeles Times

Drought-Ravaged California Orders Record Water Cuts on FarmersThe Guardian

The Untapped Potential of California’s Water SupplyPacific Institute and NRDC

California Is Literally Sinking Into the GroundMother Jones

Joseph Poland of the U.S. Geological Survey used a utility pole to document where a farmer would have been standing in 1925, 1955 and where Poland was then standing in 1977 after land in the San Joaquin Valley had sunk nearly 30 feet.

Joseph Poland of the U.S. Geological Survey used a utility pole to document where a farmer would have been standing in 1925, 1955 and where Poland was then standing in 1977 after land in the San Joaquin Valley had sunk nearly 30 feet. Image: U.S. Geological Survey

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Water Shortage

World Water Day: UN World Water Development Report Warns of Global Crisis by 2030

Image: UN-Water

Image: UN-Water

The way water is managed now, or not managed as the case may be, will lead to a global crisis in 15 years, a new UN report warns, unless an array of sustainable water-management practices are adopted. Within that decade and a half, the report predicts a much larger human population will have only 60% of the freshwater it needs.

Many parts of the world are suffering water stress to varying degrees now; in 15 years the stress will be more severe and more widespread, amounting to a life-threatening crisis in water-poor regions. But, as outlined in the United Nations World Water Development Report 2015, released in advance of World Water Day (today, March 22), there is hope. Read the report: Water for a Sustainable World (The report was released by UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water, or which my employer, WaterLex, is a member.)

Related posts: 

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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Drought, Environment, Groundwater

Citing Health Risks, Cuomo Bans Fracking in New York State


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December 18, 2014 · 9:41 am

When Smog Killed Thousands, 62 Years Ago This Week


Dec. 4th: On this day in 1952, a heavy blanked of smog settled over London. Before it cleared, about four days later, it caused respiratory illness so severe that up to 12,000 people died, according to estimates. The weather had been cold, so home furnaces burning coal added a lot of extra smoke and soot to factories’ and vehicles’ output. When cold air moving in from the west collided with a high-pressure air mass arriving from the east, the pollution was temporarily trapped over the city.

If you were walking down the street on Dec. 7 that year, you could see as little as 15 feet in any direction, thanks to the heavy haze. Unfortunately, you can still have that experience today, in places like Beijing. The Great Smog of ’52, aka the Big Smoke, contributed to the creation and passage of the UK’s Clean Air Act of 1956 and other measures that reduced coal burning. Nevertheless, another series of really bad air days followed, exactly 10 years later, in Dec. 1962, killing about 750 Londoners.

Read more:

Great Smog — Wikipedia

The Great Smog of 1952 — Met Office Education

11 Incredible Pictures From the Great Smog of 1952 — The Huffington Post

Air Pollution ‘Kills 7 Million People a Year‘ – The Guardian

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Filed under Environment, Pollution

War Is Hell, Part 941: The Environment

burning oil fields

In case you missed it, the United Nations’ (UN) International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict was Thursday, Nov. 6. Its point is to educate people about the damaging effects of armed conflict on the environment. Natural resources are often military targets — poisoned wells, torched crops and oil reserves, tainted soil —  and often remain ruined long after the battle is over, compromising ecosystems. The UN General Assembly first declared the day on Nov. 5, 2001, and it has remained not-exactly-famous ever since.

“We must use all of the tools at our disposal, from dialogue and mediation to preventive diplomacy, to keep the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources from fueling and financing armed conflict and destabilizing the fragile foundations of peace,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. So true.

Read more:

International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict – timeanddate.com

Event Page – United Nations

What’s the Environmental Impact of Modern War? – The Guardian


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Filed under Conflicts, Environment, Europe, Events, Human rights, Industry, United Nations, Water Resources

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

furrow_irrigation (1)

When you observe water-stressed and drought-stricken areas around the world, you hear the same question being asked again and again: Who uses the most water? A common assumption leads people to blame the general population for its wasteful ways, heedlessly watering their lawns and washing their cars despite a water shortage. But the real answer, in most cases, is agriculture — and not by a small measure. It often accounts for 70% to 80% of total water use, and sometimes more.

Irrigation and other water uses in agriculture, especially where it is a major industry for domestic and export food production, such as California’s Central Valley, make other water uses look like drops in a bucket. According to a 2012 study by the Pacific Institute, the Golden State’s 38 million people use just 4% of its water, while agriculture, including the raising of both crops and livestock, uses 93%.

The reason this matters so much is that Big Agriculture wastes epic amounts of water and often fights efficiency measures on the basis of cost. California, to stick with that example, uses much less drip irrigation than other arid farming regions of the world. Generally, efficiency standards and enforcement are not in place, which allows massive amounts of water to leak out of systems. And much of the water used simply evaporates because it is not recaptured. This goes on while agricultural users pump out deep aquifers’ groundwater far faster than it can be restored naturally, especially in times of drought.

The types of agriculture matter for the scale of water usage, as well. California rice growers flood the fields, whereas another crop might need only sips of water, relatively speaking. Beef producers use about 2,500 gallons of water per pound (as opposed to 100 gallons of water per pound of grain).  Although costly, relocating water-intensive agriculture from water-stressed regions to places where water is most abundant would make sense. In the U.S., that might mean moving some practices from the Southwest to the Southeast. In China, it would mean moving farms  from the arid north to the wet south. But in many countries, business and political interests would keep it from happening as long as possible, and in the end, severe water shortage and escalating costs would force the issue.

Where you have a massive industry, you have a wealthy lobby with a lot of political power to influence government spending. Critics of California’s $7.5 billion drought bond known as Proposition 1, to be voted on in statewide elections on Tuesday (4 November; update — it passed by a two-to-one margin), note that it provides for new dams and water-storage measures that will benefit agriculture. But it’s not yet clear what might be asked in return. About $50 million of the $7.5 billion appears to be earmarked for agricultural efficiency. Will future measures mandate adequate technology and standards of efficiency? Ultimately, the nine-member California Water Commission will decide how funds from the Prop. 1  bond measure, if passed, will be spent.  They should know that the industries using nine-tenths of the state’s water should be doing a lot more to help ease the region’s water crisis.

Read more:

UPDATE: California Propositions 1 and 2 Sail to Resounding VictoriesSan Jose Mercury News

Prop 1: Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 – Ballotpedia

Prop. 1, a False Framing of California’s Water CrisisSanta Barbara Independent

New Report Provides Insight to California’s Proposition 1 – Pacific Institute

Prop. 1 Aims to Relieve Drought — But Not This One – Los Angeles Times

Cows, Rice Fields and Big Agriculture Consumes Well Over 90% of California’s Water – AlterNet

Report Targets Waste, Inefficiency in Agricultural Water UseLos Angeles Times


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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Drought, Groundwater, Law, North America, Sustainability, Water Resources, Water Shortage