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Dinesh Suna: Reflection on UN World Toilet Day 2018

Reflection by Dinesh Suna on UN World Toilet Day 2018 in the Ecumenical Center Chapel, Geneva.

19 November 2018

Reflection on UN World Toilet Day 2018

(Ecumenical Center Chapel, Geneva)


19th November is observed as the ‘UN World Toilet Day’. This international day of action aims to break the taboo around toilets and draw attention to the global sanitation challenge. 

Can you imagine not having a toilet? Can you imagine not having privacy when you need to relieve yourself? Although unthinkable for those living in this part of the world, this is a harsh reality for many - in fact, two third of world population do not have access to a safely managed toilet and 892 million people still practise open defecation!

The UN World Toilet Day is being commemorated around the world today to raise global awareness of the daily struggle for proper sanitation that a staggering 4.5 billion people face. Since its inception in 2001, (though officially recognized by the UN only in 2013), World Toilet Day has become an important platform to demand action from governments and to reach out to wider audiences by showing that toilets can no longer be attached to taboo but it is vital to life with dignity for billions.

The theme for this year’s World Toilet Day is “When Nature Calls” !

Today’s prayers are therefore dedicated to sanitation challenges we face today.

…we need a toilet. But billions of people don’t have one.

This means human faeces, on a massive scale, is not being captured or treated – contaminating the water and soil that sustain human life.

We are turning our environment into an open sewer.

We must build toilets and sanitation systems that work in harmony with ecosystems.

World Toilet Day is about nature-based solutions to our sanitation needs.

When nature calls we have to listen and act.



For the past several years we gather here at the Ecumenical Center chapel around 19 November to commemorate the World Toilet Day.  This year too, we are here today.  Some might raise  eyebrows, some may be curious and some simply chuckle at the very thought of commemorating this day in our prayers. I remember few years ago while dedicating the morning prayers at the ecumenical center to commemorate the UN-World Toilet Day we had highlighted some imageries associated with sanitation, such as  toilet papers, buckets, mugs etc. It drew some criticism from the participants and colleagues, as we always associate toilets with something dirty and therefore we cannot comprehend using these imageries in a formal conversation, let alone in  our prayers !  We apologised to colleagues for hurting their sentiments and surely wont repeat it again.

It is rather easy to talk about water and spirituality  in almost all the religions. Its all the more easy to talk about it in Christianity, since there are ample references to “water” in the bible.  You probably do not know that there are more than 700 references to water in the Bible, much more than the word “Christ”  or “Love” or “faith”, or  “sin” etc.  However, there is no mention of the word “Toilet”  or “sanitation”  in the Bible.  There surely is a reference to it though in the old testament in Deuteronomy 23:12-14. It reads like this:

“Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. 13As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. 14For the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away from you.”

So the instruction there to the Israelites was to  use a “toilet” to relieve themselves and not just practice open defecation! And that’s about it!  Also comes with it the caution of “profanity” associated with it, that God will be offended  and turn away from people who practice open  defecation or in other words do not have access to a toilet.

The latest statistics says that 4.5 billion people  or two third of world’s population do not have access to a safely managed sanitation system or a toilet and close to 1 billion people practice open defecation.  So are these the “God forsaken people”?  Poor they are but God forsaken, certainly not!  From the Nazareth manifesto, we read today  from Luke 4:16-21 Jesus claims that he was anointed   to bring good news to the poor, the captives and oppressed!   These are the people who comprise of the above statistics who do not have access to a toilet!

I am an Indian.  A bulk of these statistics, some 600 million people are from my home country, India, which is often called as the “World’s largest open air toilet”.  Recently I was invited to speak at an international sanitation convention in India, organised by the government of India and the UN.  Apparently, India is investing over 20 billion dollars in trying to be an “Open Defecation Free” country  by 2019 – 11 years ahead of the deadline of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal 6 target on universal sanitation.  Along with me, other religious leaders were encouraged to talk about behavioural changes in addressing issues of sanitation.

India has built millions of new toilets, and many of them have become dysfunctional due to lack of running water. Some of them are used by the communities to store food grains and other valuables, as those toilets are the only concrete structure in the poor households and the fact that Indian culture does not promote relieving themselves in their own house, which is sacred! Therefore, Sanitation is not only about construction of toilets but it must be looked at with  a comprehensive approach.  This year to mark the World Toilet Day, the WHO (World Health Organisation) published a guideline on Sanitation and Health.  Which underlines that sanitation challenges are beyond toilets.

On 21 November we will be celebrating the Children’s Day with the UNICEF and talk about children’s rights! When thousands of children are dying everyday due to lack of adequate sanitation facilities, we can no longer shy away from talking about Toilets. When lack of sanitation robs people of their dignity, particularly women and girl children, it needs our serious attention.  Fullness of life, promised by God in John 10:10, cannot be achieved without access to a dignified and adequate sanitation facility. You and I cannot manage without it. Why should the 2/3rd of world’s population?

Its high time we break the taboos associated with sanitation, toilets and openly talk about it, pray about it.   In that sanitation conference in India, all participants were gifted a small bottle of “manure”, organically formed from the toilet pits. I brought my gift of the “manure” with me. … The UN General Assembly in 2015 replaced the regular toilet papers at the UN Headquarters with  toilet papers printed with the World Toilet Day message!  Last week Bill Gates took a jar of faeces in his hand while addressing a conference on Sanitation.

And we at the Ecumenical Water Network of the WCC, requested noted song writer Carolyn Gillette from the USA to compose a church hymn on Sanitation.  We will sing that song later today.  Kindly pay attention to the wordings. The world is coming out of its closets to talk about the Water Closets, which billions do not have!

Our God of the poor and God of Justice will not be offended when we talk about such a vital aspect of life and a human right denied to billions.  May God bless us to run the risk of being prophetic and be criticised rather than remain silent spectator to this gross violation of human right to Sanitation!




Dinesh Suna,
Coordinator of Ecumenical Water Network of the World Council of Churches