The Throne in Your Home

A symbol of opulence you sit on every day.

Kris McKay/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

You may not have been paying attention a few months ago when the Guggenheim Museum in New York unveiled a gleaming, 18-karat gold, fully functioning toilet. Visitors can gaze at it and then actually use it, finishing with a flush. Maurizio Cattelan, the Italian artist who created the toilet exhibit, named it "America" - an obvious statement on American excess.

The truth is, a toilet doesn't have to be gold-plated to be a luxury for many people outside of America. Globally, 2.4 billion people do not have access to a toilet and proper sanitation. I've met men and women in their 70s who have never in their lives sat on a toilet or enjoyed a hot shower.

So a fitting fact for today, World Toilet Day, is that you have a symbol of opulence right there in your own bathroom.

What do you do without a toilet? About 1 billion people - 15 percent of the world's population - have no other choice but to practice open defecation (to use the polite term). They relieve themselves in bushes, fields, rivers, and streams. Some try to contain the waste in plastic bags thrown by the road - the so-called "flying toilet."

You may be chuckling, but I'm about to get very serious. In the rural villages I've been to where open defecation is the norm, people are the worse for it. Human waste finds its way into the water and food, making people sick. Every day, diarrhea kills 1,600 children, causing more deaths than AIDS and malaria combined.

Let me say that again: More children die from diarrhea than from dreaded diseases that have mobilized global eradication efforts. And in large part it's due to a lack of toilets.

The rare necessity of relieving yourself in the wild on a camping trip makes for a funny story here, but in other parts of the world, it's a horror. Children in India risk rat bites while defecating in garbage dumps. Vicious animals share the same defecation areas as people. But just as big a threat comes from our own species: Women and girls in rural Africa risk sexual assault when there are no bathrooms in schools, shopping areas, and homes.

Toilets have a direct impact on education in developing countries, where, according to UNICEF, more than half of schools do not have bathrooms for students. Building latrines in schools has been proven to increase student enrollment, but this is a cost many communities can't afford.

The biggest losers in the toilet lottery are girls. When they reach menstruating age and need more privacy, and there are no toilets at school, many just drop out. Think of all that wasted potential for want of a safe, private bathroom.

What can we do about it? It may surprise you to know that the global return on investment in sanitation is at least fivefold - every dollar invested yields about $5.50 due to a decrease in medical costs and an increase in healthy people contributing to their local and national economies. World Vision, the leading nongovernmental provider of clean water, addresses sanitation as part of this work because we know that the benefits of clean water can be lost when hygiene doesn't also improve. Combining latrines, hand-washing stations, and education yields big gains - these interventions can cut preventable child deaths by up to 57 percent, reduce chronic malnutrition by 40 percent, reduce school absenteeism among girls by 50 percent. And through this work, about 1,500 communities became "open defecation free" in 2015.

Odds are you'll never use the Guggenheim gold toilet. But now that you know how toilets and sanitation impact lives, safety, dignity, and human potential around the world, you can improve the odds for some of the millions of people who see any toilet as an unreachable luxury.