World Toilet Day Onboard the Moshulu: Taking Action Today

Maria Johansson, for GPA -- November 19 is celebrated globally as World Toilet Day. Although this name may not instantly convey the magnitude of its theme, it is more than worthy of attention.

2.5 billion people around the world live without running water and access to a toilet. According to the World Health Organization, waterborne disease is the number one killer around the world. In fact, in 2009 it was estimated that more than 4,000 children die each day because of contaminated water.

The Global Water Alliance, formerly the Philadelphia Global Water Alliance, highlighted this critical issue during this year’s World Toilet Day onboard the Moshulu, a converted ship anchored on Penn’s Landing. Students, volunteers, board members and friends were invited to an evening of beautiful music and delicious food but with an undertone of the urgent mission around which the day revolves.

Angelita Fasnacht-Cuellar, the President of the Global Water Alliance is an engineer by trade and has long worked with water, sanitation and health issues on the international playing field. She was once kidnapped and held in captivity for 30 days as a direct result of her work to improve sanitary conditions in her home country of Colombia. She now heads the Alliance, bringing experience and dedication to a topic that seemingly does not receive the attention it deserves.

“Toilets, running water and sanitation are basic elements of unparalleled importance,” she said.

Oftentimes, Fasnacht-Cuellar explained, girls in developing countries do not go to school because there are no gender equal toilets there and they are ashamed of their bodies and bodily functions. This frequently leads to a vicious cycle: girls stay home without any education, withholding from them the most efficient route to escaping poverty.

The same cultural issues were mentioned by Reema Walia, a volunteer with the Alliance who works specifically on water and health projects in India. While the aforementioned problem is indeed common in India, Walia mentioned that the new prime minister has set out an ambitious plan for all schools in India to have gender equal toilets within a year.

The prime minister also aims to completely eradicate public defecation in India over the next five years. This is an important task since out of the one billion people around to world who do this, more than half live in India.

This lack of sanitary conditions and the cultural attitude that defecating in nature is cleaner leads to disease and is a strong contributor to the fact that 50 percent of children in India are malnourished.

The work performed in Philadelphia, as well as by organizations based in the area, surrounding these issues stretches across the globe. Howard Neukrug of the Philadelphia Water Commission stated that “Philadelphia is extremely well respected globally for our sustainability program.”

Neukrug encouraged those aboard the Moshulu to value the luxury that this area offers and to appreciate the access to clean water here. If everyone in Philadelphia skipped one flush, he said, we would save five million gallons of water.

Celebrating World Toilet Day is indeed of great importance, but Walia summarized the evening eloquently.

“The best thing is if in five years we don’t have to celebrate World Toilet Day because everyone has one,” she said.

The work of the Alliance and its friends will continue as March 26 is marked in calendars throughout the region. That day is World Water Day and the hope is that major water changes can be accomplished between now and then.