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Europe

Lack of WCs Means 40 Million Europeans Have No Place To Go

With world water experts meeting in Stockholm to discuss sanitation issues around the globe, one organization wants the EU to play closer attention to the lack of toilets closer to their homes.

Orange cardboard cutout of man squatting behind potted plant

"Where Would You Hide?" asks the exhibit

The streets of Stockholm have been taken over this week by an unusual art exhibit. Squatting beside potted plants, hiding behind shopping bags and bending down beside a rock are life-size cardboard cutouts. Painted orange, the people featured in the exhibit are both trying to draw your attention and make you avert your eyes. They are in the midst of a very private moment, you see -- relieving themselves publicly.

"Where would you hide?" is the exhibit's slogan. Its aim: to draw attention to the fact that 2.5 billion people in the world have no access to proper sanitation, including the use of a private toilet.

The exhibit, coordinated by the Stockholm International Water Institute and the German Toilet Organization has been making the rounds over the last two years, traveling from New York to Berlin to Nairobi as part of the UN's "International Year of Sanitation." It's made its way to Sweden this week as a tie-in to the annual World Water Week conference.

Calling a toilet a toilet

Man standing in front of a screen that reads world water week

Dutch Crown Prince Willem Alexander calls a toilet a toilet

This year's conference, which opened on Sunday, has adopted sanitation as its theme. The goal set out for the 2400 academics, engineers, policymakers and aidworkers in attendance was to find a way to increase the public's awareness of a problem the UN blames for an estimated 3.5 million otherwise preventable deaths per year throughout the world.

"Very many people are still not… aware that there is a global sanitation crisis," Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands told conference-goers in an opening speech. Chair of the United Nations' Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, he said he believes it's important to openly discuss these previously unmentionable subjects.

"Policy makers and opinion leaders have never suffered the lack of adequate sanitation, and if they have, it is too long ago to remember the undignified, inhumane circumstances. These people use a fancy toilet, which is connected to an effective sewer system. And they are probably unaware that this toilet and its flushing system are critical to a healthy life. … UNSGAB will continue to call a spade a spade -- or perhaps I should say 'a toilet a toilet'."

Calling a toilet a toilet is easy for the majority of Europeans. But according to the European Commission, more than 20 million people in the European Union call a bush, field or pit latrine their toilet. In Romania, for example, nearly 40 percent of the country's roughly 22 million citizens don't have access to adequate facilities. A similar percentage of Bulgaria's 7 million residents likewise go without safe sanitation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that number doubles to over 40 million when non-EU nations on the continent like Belarus and Ukraine are taken into account. This lack of sanitation is said to contribute to more than 13,000 deaths and countless illnesses, most occurring in Central and Eastern European.

Solving Europe's sanitation crisis

Those numbers are far too high, said Sascha Gabizon, International Director of the Netherlands-based NGO Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF).

Men standing in shadows of skyscraper with dirty water in foreground reflecting them

Nearly half of Bulgaria's population goes without proper sewage

An immediate solution to the toilet crisis in the EU would cost less than 480 million euros ($711 million), Gabizon said. That's just one-third more than the 350 million euros Germany's currently investing in water and sanitation projects around the world.

"The financial aspect should and can not be a barrier," said Gabizon.

If not money, then what is the problem keeping these people out of a proper water closet? With the average European using over 200 liters of water each day, it doesn't seem to be a question of water's availability. Instead, the issue of safe sanitation seems to be one of policy-making and wastewater treatment accessibility.

In a discussion paper released by the WECF ahead of the World Water Week conference, authors Claudia Wendland and Anna Richert-Stintzing say the European Commission's current directive aimed at resolving sanitation issues within the EU falters. The current directive focuses on villages and cities with over 2,000 inhabitants but fails to address problems in more rural areas. It's those populations, said the report, that are most in need.

"Since rural sanitation is not specifically identified in the EU directives," Gabizon said, "often new member states have no resources left to allocate to this issue."

To combat that issue, then, the WECF works with donor partners to have proper facilities installed in rural villages throughout Romania.

Still, the organization says the EU has a long way to go if it wants to fulfill the lofty objective of halving the number of people without safe sanitation by 2015, a target established by the UN in its Millennium Development Goals.

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