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New study shows true cost of neglecting school toilets

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To mark World Toilet Day, Economist Impact and Unilever have published first-of-its-kind research on the far-reaching cost of ‘toilet loss’ in schools and how the answer lies in cost-effective maintenance.

Four young African girls in school uniforms walking into school toilets marked with a painted sign saying ‘toilettes’.

In a new report from Economist Impact, supported by Unilever, the true cost of poorly maintained school toilets has been quantified for the first time.

And it’s an uncomfortable read.

While we already know that nearly 540 million children go to a school with no usable toilet, the study reveals that almost half of these are impacted by ‘toilet loss’. This is where the facilities have been built but are unusable due to lack of operation and maintenance.

The year-long study across Ecuador, India, Nigeria and the Philippines found that poor maintenance led to 1.2 million lost school toilets, equating to a combined infrastructure loss of US$1.9 billion and an economic and societal cost amounting to US$10 billion.

These figures take into account the cost of healthcare for children who become sick with infections caused by poor sanitation, reduced family income from missed work and lost economic output.

The four countries, indicative of others worldwide, could be 10% closer to the sustainable development goal of providing all children with access to usable school toilets by 2030, if construction was supported by maintenance.

“The problem isn’t that we’re building toilets too slowly, it’s that we’re losing the toilets we have already built too quickly. That’s something we need to fix,” says Shuchi Suri, Unilever’s Head of Household Cleaning and Hygiene. “We know how important school toilets are to educational outcomes. That’s why we commissioned this report to quantify the scale and the real financial cost of toilet loss.”

Read Tackling Toilet Loss: The hidden economic and societal cost of neglecting school toilets

Minimum investment, maximum return

Three women in Domestos-branded blue overalls and several schoolchildren in uniform standing outside a row of toilets.

The world needs 20 million additional toilets to reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal of universal sanitation in schools. Economist Impact analysis shows that 8 million of those are currently lost.

Researchers studied multiple investment approaches to meet this goal. They found that the most efficient and equitable way to accelerate progress is through a combination of smart investment in operation and maintenance and new construction, to ensure no toilet is built without a plan to maintain it.

The study found that, in most countries, such a plan requires just one additional cent of every dollar spent on education.

Toilets should be valued as much as gold

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In 2017, our leading toilet-cleaning brand Domestos launched its dedicated operation and maintenance programme for schools – Cleaner Toilets, Brighter Futures. Working with local governments, NGOs and partner organisations, the programme inspires collaboration between janitors, teachers and children so that once their school toilets are clean, safe and useable, they are kept that way.

With its latest campaign, Domestos is asking people to treat all toilets as if they were as valuable as gold, highlighting that a relatively small investment in maintenance keeps toilets in use for longer. Essentially, if they are looked after properly, we’d stop losing them.

The superior germ-killing power of Domestos toilet-cleaning products combined with this sharp purpose is what has enabled the brand to double the size of its business over the past ten years.

“We will use the new data from the Economist Impact report to make a difference,” says Shuchi. “It is our responsibility and opportunity to ensure everyone – decision-makers, stakeholders and the public – sees the value of toilets and the importance of maintaining them in a whole new light.”

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