The World Loses $260 Billion Each Year Because People Can’t Find a Good Toilet

The World Bank calculates how much money is lost because of inadequate toilet facilities around the world. There’s a human cost to bad sanitation infrastructure, of course, but nothing grabs a governments attention quite like money.

Credit: The World Bank

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

The lack of proper sanitation infrastructure across the globe takes a huge toll on human health and the environment. It also costs a tremendous amount of money.

Figures released last month by the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) reveal just how steep the price tag is for parts of the world where people don’t have access to adequate toilet facilities. WSP puts the annual global cost at $260 billion, a figure that includes what nations pay in premature death, health care expenses and lost productivity due to waterborne illnesses.

There’s another figure, too, that you might not think of if you haven’t lived in a place without toilets. A typical person who must defecate in the open spends a total of about 2.5 days each year looking for a place to do their business in private.

In 2010, the United Nations acknowledged what might seem self-evident, but still needed to be made clear: Clean drinking water and access to a place to urinate and defecate in private, with the waste safely disposed of, are a basic human right.

According to the World Bank, 2.5 billion people lack the second part of that equation, and some 1 billion practice open defecation. That number includes 69 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa and 62 percent of the population of South Asia.

Why is it so important to put a price tag on human suffering? WSP’s researchers recognize that nothing gets the attention of a government like money. By quantifying the expense of poor sanitation in stark monetary terms, they hope to persuade planners and bureaucrats that it is worth investing in a solution.

“Economics brings greater focus to both the cost and benefit side of the sanitation equation,” Guy Hutton, an economist working on WSP’s Economics of Sanitation Initiative, says in an online presentation.

WSP’s research shows that spending on sanitation results in a huge return on investment, yielding $5 for every $1 spent. That’s an enticing figure, and it doesn’t even account for benefits to tourism, water quality and land values.

But the magnitude of the problem remains staggering, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Rural and urban areas, for instance, require different types of systems. As city edges become more densely settled, old solutions such as pit latrines become overburdened and unworkable, endangering the underground water supplies that these same communities depend on. Yet the financial and water resources to build the type of sewage systems common in developed countries often don’t exist.

One solution that WSP and others have explored is a simplified system known as a “condominial sewer.” Pioneered in South American countries like Brazil and Peru, these networks of pipes work at the neighborhood scale to enable the construction of toilets and the proper disposal of waste at a relatively low cost. Pilot programs, such as one in an informal settlement at the edge of Lusaka, Zambia, are exploring the possibility of implementing such systems where they are most needed — the rapidly growing urban settlements of sub-Saharan Africa and similar places around the world.

Clean water and a private, sanitary toilet may indeed be a human right. But WSP and other agencies trying to bring about global change are banking on the idea that framing the issue in terms of money, rather than rights, will spur governments to provide their citizens with the facilities they deserve.

Watermark is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.

Follow Sarah

Tags: healthtrashwatermarkunited nations

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 992 other sustainers such as:

  • Joseph at $5/Month
  • Anonymous in Newburyport, MA at $5/Month
  • John at $10/Month

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $60 or

    Just Action by Leah Rothstein and Richard Rothstein

  • Solutions of the year 2022

    Donate $20 or $5/Month

    2022-2023 Solutions of the Year magazine

  • Brave New Home

    Donate $40 or $10/Month

    Brave New Home by Diana Lind