Living without a toilet: more common than you think

In the Onga Zanga zone, in the province of Luanda, the colonial-style house where Maria Laurinda lives does not have the charm it once had, and is in terrible condition.

Maria and her six children have well water throughout the year, but she still remembers the time before the Government installed the water pump. Before, they had no water and had to go to the nearest lagoon, which is 5 km away from their village.

Today, when the water pump breaks down, her brother buys the necessary parts to fix it; he also chlorinates the tank to ensure the water they use daily is drinkable.

But these advances in access to water have had no impact on the family’s reality as far as sanitation goes. Maria has a place outside where she and her family can wash with the water collected using the pump. But like a large percentage of the community, they defecate in the open air.

Mother holding baby and small child stand in front of a shack
© UNICEF Angola/2016/Simancas Maria and her children stand in front of the place where they go to wash themselves.

This puts them in danger every day, since the area has wild animals, like snakes. Because the faeces and urine are not properly treated, it also contaminates the groundwater reserves that provide drinking water – and the land the community puts so much effort into cultivating to grow their food. This contamination leads to diarrhea and other serious health conditions.

Using latrines prevents the germs present in human excrement from entering the environment and protects the health of the entire community. But, Maria says with regret, “Nobody ever gave us any information about basic sanitation. Children should learn these subjects at school.”

A very common reality

Maria’s situation, which may surprise people in many parts of the world, is still a daily reality for many others. Today, the third of the planet’s population that does not have improved sanitation facilities cannot celebrate World Toilet Day.

In Angola, according to the 2014 Census, only 6 out of 10 families use an appropriate place to defecate – and it’s only 26% in rural areas, versus 82% in urban ones. Poverty and lack of access to water make it more difficult for communities to improve basic sanitation.

Conditions are not much better for children in schools. On average, 58% of students have access to toilets, 28% use latrines, and 45% defecate outdoors, says UNICEF’s study, ‘WASH in Schools in Angola’, conducted in 600 educational centres in six provinces of the country.

The lack of sanitation is directly linked to the transmission of diseases such as cholera and diarrhea. According to the Angolan Ministry of Health, diarrheal diseases account for 18% of under-five deaths, and are very common among school-age children. Inadequate hygiene practices are among the reasons for infant deaths, faecal-oral transmission diseases, malnutrition and stunting among Angola’s children.

To reverse this situation, UNICEF works with the Government of Angola, the European Union and other partners in provinces such as Huila, Cunene, Moxico and Bié. “The goal is to help families like Maria’s to improve their sanitation situation. We work with local governments and populations to facilitate a healthier environment and a more dignified life through improved access to a safe latrine or bathroom,” says UNICEF Angola’s Water and Sanitation Specialist, David Pedrueza.

For example, since the Community-Led Total Sanitation program (CLTS) began in 2008, UNICEF and partners have been able to declare hundreds of peri-urban villages and neighbourhoods as ‘open defecation free’ communities, improving lives of inhabitants, and children in particular.

‘Toilets and jobs’

World Toilet Day, celebrated on 19 November, focuses this year on how sanitation, or the lack of it, can affect livelihoods. Toilets play a crucial role in creating a strong economy, as well as improving health and protecting people’s safety and dignity – particularly for women and girls, who need clean and separate facilities to manage menstruation and pregnancies.

A lack of toilets at work and at home has severe impacts on businesses, because it leads to poor health, absenteeism and exhaustion among the workforce. Investing in good toilets in workplaces can contribute greatly to people’s health and productivity, and to making economies grow.

This all still sounds distant to Maria, but it shouldn’t be like this. She dreams of a well-constructed and clean toilet in a place near her home. Fortunately, next year she will be able to celebrate World Toilet Day like the two thirds of the world who today have access to a latrine or toilet. It is her right – everyone’s right.


Vânia Casqueiro Barreto is a communications consultant and Marcos González is a Digital Communication Officer at UNICEF Angola.

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