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Development Aid

Donors shy away from toilets

Two and a half billion people do not have access to clean and safe toilets. Yet aid agencies are struggling to find funds for sanitation and hygiene projects.

You can't be too picky when you're in a war or crisis zone. Sometimes, there's only enough time to dig a narrow trench: a make-shift squat toilet for up to 15 people.

"We're always lagging behind when it comes to humanitarian aid," Paul Shenahan told DW.

Shenahan coordinates humanitarian operations in the fields of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). "Toilets are the most expensive and time-consuming of all humanitarian aid operations," he said.

Integral to disaster relief

Refugees constructing a latrine in South Sudan / UNHCR / B. Sokol / August 2012

Refugees constructing a latrine in South Sudan

Shanahan said sanitation is an extremely important part of humanitarian disaster relief.

"Human excrements may be infectious, so they have to be properly disposed of," he said, adding that diseases can spread quickly, particularly in cramped refugee and transit camps. Cholera epidemics and life-threatening diarrhea are a constant danger.

Aid agencies' tend to dig deep pits and cover them with wooden planks with a hole in them. The toilets are then sheltered from sight by tarpaulin or timber planks, at a safe distance from the refugees' tents.

Scare water supplies

Most toilets don't have a water flush and aren't connected to drainage systems, Paul Spiegel from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

"Quite often, a single refugee's water ration is equivalent to flushing one toilet," he said, adding that it's more important that refugees use the scare water supplies to wash their hands than wash away waste.

A Syrian refugee woman and a boy stand outside a tent at Yayladagi refugee camp in Hatay province
REUTERS/Murad Sezer

In cramped conditions, diseases can spread quickyly

Often aid agencies like UNHCR will employ local staff to explain the camp hygiene rules to new arrivals.

The local helpers often report that refugees want two basic conditions when it comes to sanitation: personal safety and human dignity.

"If you build toilets and latrines without talking to the camp population first, then you may end up putting them in inadequate locations," Spiegel said.

Sexual assaults on their way to the latrines

Humanitarian workers are aware that women and girls are sometimes raped on their way to the latrines. Both Shanahan and Spiegel agreed that some simple measures can help. Toilets, according to the sanitation experts, can't be located too far from the refugees' accommodation and good lighting is essential.

While there is wide-spread consensus that safe and clean toilets are important, many aid donors are haven't really latched on to the idea, Shanahan said.

He pointed to the UN's appeal for funds for the Sahel region. While in total almost 65 percent of the humanitarian aid has been covered, donors have so far only provided 30 percent of the funds for the subcategory "water, sanitation and hygiene."

DW.DE