In the UK, we accept toilets as an essential part of life, but it’s not often we sing their praises. The most publicity the humble lavatory gets is probably in the form of toilet humour. What goes on behind the bathroom door is shrouded in embarrassment, secrecy and a wide array of euphemisms, ranging from spending a penny to powdering your nose.
Hardly surprising then, if we sometimes forget how serious sanitation is. The fact is: toilets help save lives. From the gold-plated WC to the bog-standard public loo, they all ensure potentially harmful human waste is disposed of safely.
Most UK residents can take for granted that they’ll never be more than a few minutes from a functioning toilet. However, even before the 2010 earthquake, Haiti only had one toilet for every 1,000 people.
What do you get if millions of people don’t have sanitation?
With the worst sanitation in the western hemisphere, there are millions of people across Haiti without access to a toilet. Poor sanitation, compounded by the earthquake’s destruction, had devastating consequences; the cholera outbreak that began in Haiti last year has already killed 6,000 people.
The British Red Cross responded to the outbreak by setting up a cholera treatment center and oral rehydration points. It also started a cholera prevention education campaign that had reached over 214,000 people by the end of July 2011.
Once local communities made the connection between lack of sanitation and disease, demand for toilets was high. So, to complement the cholera response and recovery work it was already undertaking, the Red Cross started a programme to build toilets in the rural communities of Les Anglais, Coteaux, Chardonnieres and Port à Piment.
Why did the community build a latrine?
Jean Eubert Amardy, a Red Cross field officer, says: “People just go to the bathroom anywhere, and this leads to unsanitary conditions. Building latrines is one of the best ways to counter disease and keep people healthy.
“In some ways, the cholera outbreak that highlighted this situation has provided an opportunity to make a difference to the local sanitation situation and to tackle the causes of cholera and other diseases, and not just the symptoms.”
The project has built toilets for both vulnerable households and schools. It has worked with local communities to find affordable solutions that take into account environmental factors such as soil type.
Edma Maguerite has been hosting family members displaced by the earthquake. Local workmen employed by the Red Cross have just finished building her a composting latrine. She says: “We have never had a toilet so we are very satisfied that we will soon be able to have our own. This will make a big difference to our lives.”
Find out about our work to improve water and sanitation in Haiti
Read stories from survivors we helped after the earthquake
Discover how we help people rebuild their lives after a disaster