What is sanitation?

Written by
FH staff writer
Published on
November 18, 2022 at 5:15:00 PM PST November 18, 2022 at 5:15:00 PM PSTth, November 18, 2022 at 5:15:00 PM PST

“Why do we always have to clean the bathroom before guests come over?” my six-year-old complained as she scrubbed the sink and I bleached the toilet. “The house doesn’t have to be perfect!” she carried on. 

“Because of sanitation,” I growled back as I swirled the toilet brush around the bowl.

“What’s ‘sa-ni-taaaaa-tion’?” she asked, half to be annoying and half because I had piqued her curiosity with a new word.

“It’s keeping things clean so we don’t get sick,” I replied. “I don’t care if the house is ‘perfect’ for our friends, but I do want them to be in a clean and comfortable environment when they come over. Now, get back to scrubbing!”

Okay, so maybe my explanation was a little oversimplified, but it’s very difficult to keep a curious little girl on task when she’s looking for any way to get out of cleaning.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), sanitation is slightly more encompassing than my description. They define it as “having access to facilities for the safe disposal of human waste (feces and urine), as well as having the ability to maintain hygienic conditions, through services such as garbage collection, industrial/hazardous waste management, and wastewater treatment and disposal.”

Whew, that’s a mouthful! But it pretty much boils down to our bathroom (except for the industrial/hazardous waste management bit). We have a functioning toilet hooked up to plumbing that connects to a functioning city sewage system that has a functioning waste treatment plant. We have water to flush our toilet and water to clean the toilet, sink, and floors. And every Wednesday, the city comes around and collects our garbage (where we stash our toddler’s dirty diapers).

Photo credit: Mick Haupt, Unsplash

If only my six-year-old could appreciate what a luxury it is to even have a toilet, much less have the water to clean it! 

But sanitation isn’t just toilets, sewage systems, and clean water. 

It’s also our habits, like handwashing with soap—another point of contention with my daughter. She thinks I’m being ridiculous for insisting she wash her hands (with soap) everytime she comes in from playing outside, before she sets the table, after she uses the toilet, and so on. 

And while I do explain to her how germs work and that putting dirty hands in your mouth can make you sick, I don’t have the heart to tell her that 829,000 people die each year from diarrhea as a result of unsafe drinking-water, sanitation, and hand hygiene. 

Or that over a third of those people are children under the age of five…children the age of her toddling little sister. 

Mothers in Latin America learn to value the power good hygiene has in battling malnutrition.

That really is bleak number, one I don’t like to think about. But it’s also a number that makes me grateful for organizations like Food for the Hungry (FH) who actively work to help communities get the facilities and clean water they need to have health, dignity, and life. 

Stewart Goodwin, WASH Technical Advisor for FH Global, explains, “Improving sanitation is a very important part of our WASH activities at FH, in most of our country offices, because poor sanitation is such a key driver in causing poor health, malnutrition, and disease.” 

In addition to helping communities construct new latrines—often in schools, health centres, and homes—FH also educates families about the importance of improved sanitation and its ties to health and nutrition. If your gut is full of parasites stealing the nutrients from the food you eat, it’s easy to become malnourished and weakened.

In response to learning about the life-saving potential of sanitation, FH partner communities are implementing Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS). This is a sustainable approach to behaviour change where the whole community, together, designs a plan for how they will create a clean and hygienic environment that benefits the whole group, rather than just focusing on the individual. 

The "Tippy Tap" is a creative, practical, and easy solution that repurposes home supplies as a handwashing station.

FH partner communities in Ethiopia are trying a new approach called Market Based Sanitation to help them accomplish their CLTS goals. Market Based Sanitation supports the CLTS community plan by strengthening supply and demand for sanitation technologies and providing better sanitation products to consumers. These might include improved latrine slabs or septic tanks, piping water into homes and schools or improving the design of traditionally home-made handwashing stations. Whatever it takes to up their sanitation game!

When you think about it, no one should suffer sickness simply because they don’t have a safe way to dispose of their waste. And little children definitely shouldn’t be dying because they don’t have a way to wash their hands. There’s just no good reason for preventable diseases to take any more lives. 

So what can we do? Practice. Preach. Protect!

First things first, we all need to practice good sanitation and hygiene in our own homes, with our own children—keeping the bathrooms clean and washing our hands with soap, for starters. 

Secondly, we need to preach good sanitation and hygiene in our own communities. For example, talk to your children’s teachers to ensure the kids are being encouraged (and even supervised) to wash their hands with soap after using the bathroom and before eating snacks and lunch. I’m also “that mom” who makes my daughter’s friends wash their hands when they come in to play and before they eat snacks in our house.

Thirdly, we need to act to protect others from harmful disease by empowering them to implement their own sanitation solutions. One way to do this is to support Food for the Hungry sanitation work. Give a $110 Clean Toilet for a school, or a $75 Clean Water for those who need it most.

Want to help flush disease—and poverty!—down the drain?

Give clean water

A water tap may appear in many forms, but clean hands is always a good feeling!