Putting Poop In Its Place: The Problems With Bad Global Sanitation

Diseases caused by contact with fecal matter are the largest killer of children in the world. The problem: Not enough toilets. The solutions, as you can see in this infographic, are not so simple.

Everybody poops (or so we’ve heard). But if you’re reading this on the Internet, you probably poop in a toilet that flushes. This seems normal to you but, in fact, you are living in the lap of luxury. That toilet is basically all that’s between you and a life full of disease and hardship. It’s certainly the most important appliance in your house. Just ask the millions of people around the world who die from diseases brought on by bad sanitation. This new infographic from Online Nursing Programs shows just how important toilets are, and just how hard it is to get them to people worldwide who need them (which, see above, is everyone).


The first thing to think about is water. Your toilet uses a lot of it. It makes it super clean and easy. In most of the rest of the world, there isn’t much water to spare (in fact, there might not be too much to spare here, either). Because of how much water it takes to flush–3.5 gallons–if everyone on the planet flushed just once, it would use 24.5 billion gallons of water a day. That’s simply too much.

One in three people around the world don’t have access to even the most basic of sanitation services, which means they are forced to go outside. Set aside questions of modesty, all that poop contains a lot of very bad germs. Once it gets in the water system that people drink, the results can be deadly: 1.4 million children die each year from diseases caused by contact with fecal matter. That’s more than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined, and just because there aren’t any toilets. Why is the death toll so high? Because the total amount of untreated fecal matter that is floating around the world is enormous:

Because of the lack of water, just airlifting flush toilets around the world isn’t a viable solution. Instead, there needs to be a toilet innovation revolution. The flush toilet remains basically unchanged since its invention in 1775. A toilet that would solve our global feces crisis would need to be able to run without electricity, plumbing, or a sewer system. The Gates Foundation is currently challenging people to invent a toilet that fulfills this criteria, in an attempt to cut the number of people with no toilet access in half. Here are some of the leading contenders:

Of course, it isn’t just a question of installing toilets, even modern ones that solve all the problems. In many parts of the world, people are used to defecating outside, and there will have to be serious public service campaigns before there is any serious curbing of disease. For example, between 1997 to 2000, the World Health Organization paid to construct 1.6 million outhouses in rural India. Today, only 47% are being used in the intended manner. The rest are used for storage. To see the whole infographic, click here, or view it below:

About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Ideas section, formerly