On November 19, the world celebrates a most unglamorous holiday: World Toilet Day.
The man who turned a taboo subject into an international day is Singaporean businessman Jack Sim, who founded the World Toilet Organization in 2001 and later the World Toilet College, World Toilet Summit, and bathroom associations around the globe.
Arguing that poor sanitation kills people and costs millions in lost productivity, “Mr. Toilet” made a crusade out of sanitation (while keeping a sense of humor—the 2012 World Toilet Day slogan was “I give a sh--, do you?”). In 2013, the United Nations adopted it to recognize the 2.4 billion people who live without a toilet. Two years later the UN pledged toilet access for everyone by 2030 in the Sustainable Development Goals.
With this global attention, toilet innovation has flourished. Government and NGO-run initiatives that produce low-cost toilets or toilet add-ons to improve safety and sanitation are dispatched to remote villages and disaster zones. But it remains a challenge to tackle the stigma that accompanies a trip to the bathroom in various countries. Critics note that these initiatives do not earmark enough money for education. This gives cultural norms (many of which prohibit having a bathroom in or near a home) power over modern technology.
“Understand that different cultures have different reasons for building toilets,” says Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, chair of the classics department at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and author of The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy. “Not everybody thinks like the Western world.”
Koloski-Ostrow, who’s known to her friends as the “Queen of Latrines,” believes that ancient Rome can be a lesson in how to address sanitation in the Third World.
Romans didn’t invent the toilet—it was being used 3,000 years before they got to it—but they did revolutionize urban planning for sanitation. But despite the infrastructure—public restrooms, sewer systems, public baths, and aqueduct drinking systems—public health in Rome lead to few benefits. A lack of knowledge about how germs spread meant that the sanitation system actually increased parasites and diseases during the era compared to the earlier Iron Age.
Today, these lessons can be applied to the developing world. India, where some 665 million people don’t have access to facilities, is ground zero for toilet activists. Open defecation is common, spreading diseases and putting women, who often relieve themselves alone in fields late at night, in danger of assault. And the economy suffers, too: A 2012 World Bank study found that lack of toilets and sanitation costs the country $54 billion annually. To improve the country’s sanitation, the government has pledged to build a hundred million toilets and aims for “total sanitation” in 2019, to mark Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday.
Though more than nine million toilets have been installed since 2014 in India, just providing a toilet isn’t enough. Reports show that without education, people don’t understand why they should change their habits, and it’s not uncommon for toilets donated by charities to be left uninstalled and government-funded toilets to malfunction.
Three thousand years ago, superstition and taboo may have also influenced why the Romans never fully benefited from their sophisticated infrastructure. Public toilets, which connected to the city’s sewer system and filthy underbelly, were considered dangerous. Demons were thought to live beneath the city and pop up through the openings toilets provided. Sometimes a buildup of methane gases would cause an explosion under a bathroom-goer. Private bathrooms were rarely connected to the sewer line, meaning the bacteria and germs spread from a cesspool toilet into kitchens and gardens. One ancient text that Koloski-Ostrow discovered illuminated a reason why the toilets were kept off the main lines: One day the slaves of a wealthy merchant near the Bay of Naples watched as an octopus climbed out the toilet and raided their pickled fish supply.
To ward off these evils, it was common for a bathroom-goer to sit facing a depiction of Fortuna, the goddess of good luck. But she couldn’t prevent unsanitary conditions. “We can’t teach the Romans about germ transmission, but we can see how they were trying to cope with problems they face with remarkable ingenuity,” says Koloski-Ostrow of the elaborate infrastructure.
The key today, she says, is to understand traditions and beliefs that sustain the stigma getting in the way of hygienic bathroom practices. This can be a difficult topic to tackle, even in a field like archaeology. While reading 19th century records, Koloski-Ostrow says that toilets were often mislabeled as water-lifting devices or torture chambers in field reports, even though she is convinced excavators knew their true purpose. No one had taken the initiative to map out the ancient Roman toilet system, and when she did, she discovered the meticulous planning of a civilization concerned with sanitation but without the knowledge to achieve it. Her map of Pompeii revealed more than 400 private toilets, some very close to sewer lines but none connected.
Toilet habits continue to ignite debate. But if solutions are to be effective, understanding why sanitation is important remains as relevant now as it did in ancient Rome.
“I try to be as meticulous and cautious in studying the Romans as I would hope modern planners are in India and Africa as they try to understand what the problems are and how local people have tried to solve them,” Koloski-Ostrow says.