IWA Publishing is pleased to share the latest blog post from one of our Open Access Ambassadors!

Our OA Ambassadors raise awareness in their local communities about global OA movements as well as related opportunities through IWA Publishing. They are representatives of both the International Water Association and IWA Publishing and our joint goals to empower the next generation of water leaders and to shape the future of the water sector. These blog posts highlight their specialty and research focus, as well as emphasising the importance of Open Access publishing. 

This blog post is written by Fernanda Deister Moreira, an MSc and PhD student at the Sanitation, Environment and Water Resources Grad Program at Federal University of Minas Gerais. Connect with Fernanda on LinkedIn.

Water and sanitation are fundamental rights recognized by the UN since 2010 and must be guaranteed for all individuals. While the concept of universalization is commonly associated with household access to sanitation services, it is crucial to extend this notion to include vulnerable groups who do not live or work in conventional households. For instance, individuals who reside in streets or public spaces also require access to proper sanitation facilities.

Metrics used to measure universalization include the number of toilets in a household, sewage connections, service and sewage treatment rates, as well as the identification of service providers. However, it is essential to acknowledge that universalization should encompass the needs of all individuals, irrespective of their living conditions. Public spaces, which serve as pathways, recreational areas, and transit points for those with access to home sanitation, should not be overlooked. To discuss the universalization of sanitation comprehensively, the importance of public toilets cannot be understated.

Public toilets are considered urban amenities that uphold the human right to sanitation. They are essential infrastructure elements associated with the right to the city, overall health, and quality of life. Despite their undeniable significance, public discourse on this topic remains limited.

Therefore, it is imperative to broaden the conversation surrounding universal sanitation access to include public toilets. By recognizing the pivotal role they play in ensuring the human right to sanitation, we can foster greater awareness, advocacy, and action towards providing adequate sanitation facilities for all individuals, including those in public spaces.

What are the minimum requirements to meet the human right to sanitation in public spaces?

Public toilets, from the perspective of the human right to sanitation, must meet five normative standards. The first is the availability, which is related to the number of toilets in a public place, considering the use of space, people traffic, peak hours and location. The second aspect to consider is accessibility, which encompasses various factors such as toilet design, services for people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups. For example, a toilet in a square underground where access is via stairs does not meet the requirement of accessibility as it is creating obstacles for people with wheelchairs, the elderly, pregnant women, mothers or fathers with strollers, among other groups, to access the toilet. The third standard to be met is affordability, which includes the cost of accessing a toilet. The amount charged cannot compromise an individual's savings. In this regard, the most vulnerable groups, such as street workers (pickers, street vendors, etc.) and the homeless should be taken into account. The fourth standard is related to the quality and safety of this furniture. The toilet must be clean, organized, maintained and ensure user safety. Finally, the fifth standard is related to privacy, dignity and acceptability. This last item considers the need to understand the demands of groups such as women, girls and transgender people, for example, so they can have access to the toilet without hesitation or fear. In addition, it is in this regard that the need for gender separation of toilets is evaluated.

Although there are five standards that define the fulfillment of the right to sanitation in public space, this right is only guaranteed when all five are met at the same time.

What are the benefits associated with the implementation of public toilets?

When public toilets are available, various spheres of urban life are affected. With regard to health, we can exemplify with the group of street workers. If they have access to a toilet during their working day, they will not need to avoid drinking water. In this way, problems such as heat stress, dehydration, urinary infections, among others, are avoided. In terms of quality of life, we can mention a public toilet as a piece of furniture that attracts elderly people to the public space, reducing sedentary lifestyles (a study carried out in Porto Alegre identified the lack of toilets as one of the reasons why elderly people do not go to parks and squares). In terms of work, the presence of toilets ensures that informal street workers (street vendors, waste pickers, etc.) and formal street workers (bus drivers, postmen, etc) have access to decent work. The presence of public toilets contributes to guaranteeing dignity for homeless people. Regarding transport, the existence of toilets encourages the use of public transport and the use of bicycles. Finally, the presence of this furniture encourages people to spend more time in parks and squares for leisure.

In this way, it is argued that the availability of public toilets is a tool to alleviate social inequalities, in addition to being a key instrument to achieve the universalization of sanitation services, which is a key aspect of the sixth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

References:

HELLER, L. Human Rights to water and sanitation in spheres of life beyond the household with an emphasis on public spaces. Human Rights Council, UN. 2019.

MOREIRA, F.D.; REZENDE, S.; PASSOS, F. On-street toilets for sanitation access in urban public spaces: A systematic review. Utilities Policy, v. 70, p. 101186, 2021.

GREED, C. Inclusive urban design. Routledge, 2003.

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