October 17, 2008

Life without a toilet
International workshop and exhibit bring attention
to a taboo

Hamilton, ON. October 17, 2008 –Where would we go if we didn’t have access to a toilet? For 2.6-billion people—more than 40 per cent of the world’s population—it is a daily reality. They also bear the brunt of needless death: According to the United Nations, the total number of deaths in 2002 that were attributed to poor water, sanitation and hygiene was more than 3.5-million. Diarrhoea accounts for 1.4-million preventable child deaths each year. 

A controversial art exhibit and an international workshop have been organized by the United Nations University International Network on Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) in partnership with McMaster University and the McMaster Museum of Art to draw awareness to the United Nations International Year of Sanitation, and to offer potential solutions to this global problem.

The exhibit, Sanitation is Dignity, is a global initiative of the German Toilet Organisation supported by UN Water. It features life-size, two-dimensional figures squatting—with one unmistakable purpose—behind objects of convenience such as backpacks and garbage bins in an effort to preserve their privacy and dignity. The figures will be placed throughout the central campus to enhance awareness and empathy for the vulnerability faced by individuals who don’t have access to a toilet.


“The exhibit has been shown throughout the world, including public venues such as Central Park in New York City,” says Carol Podedworny, director and curator of the McMaster Museum of Art. “We see this initiative as part of our commitment to bring to campus engaging projects that respond to both current and critical issues. It is an exhibit that will provoke discussion, and inspire the teaching and research interests of students, of faculties, and of the general public.”

The exhibit runs from Oct. 15 to Nov. 1.

During the exhibit, experts from around the world representing academia, governments, NGOs and the United Nations will gather for a workshop Sanitation: Innovations in Policy and Finance at McMaster University. They will examine why sanitation coverage is so far behind in terms of achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the policy and finance mechanisms required to change the situation, and how climate change will impact choices and decisions.  Among those addressing the workshop are Dr. Zafar Adeel, director of UNU-INWEH; Dr. Edward Kairu, Maji na Ufanisi and Chair of the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation (ANEW); Jamie Bartram of the World Health Organization; and Dr. Jamie Benidickson, professor of law, environment and financing at the University of Ottawa. Full details of the conference can be found at www.inweh.unu.edu.

In addition, Dr. Kairu will lead a public discussion about the global sanitation crisis as part of McMaster University’s Science in the City lecture series on Tuesday, Oct. 21 at 7:00 p.m. in the auditorium of the Hamilton Spectator, 44 Frid Street, Hamilton.

“We can imagine hunger or thirst,” says Susan Elliott, professor of geography at McMaster University, and senior research fellow at UNU-INWEH, “but the idea of living without a toilet is unimaginable for most of us.” Corinne Wallace of UNU-INWEH adds that “people in extreme poverty, and particularly women and female children, bear the brunt of inadequate access to sanitation, and often their personal safety is at risk in addition to the lack of dignity.”

Ari Grief of the Canadian Toilet Organization points out that lack of available toilets is an issue not confined to developing countries: In wealthy, developed countries such as Canada, tourists, pedestrians, bus drivers, delivery workers, those who live in remote communities and others often struggle to find a clean toilet.


Further information on the exhibit is available at www.sanitation-is-dignity.org 


Established by the U.N. General Assembly in 1973, United Nations University is an international community of scholars engaged in research, advanced training and the dissemination of knowledge related to pressing global problems. UNU-INWEH was created in 1996 to strengthen water management capacity, particularly of developing countries, and to provide on-the-ground project support. With core funding provided by the Government of Canada, it is hosted by McMaster University, Canada.

For more information, please contact:

Jane Christmas

Manager, Public & Media Relations

McMaster University

905-525-9140 ext. 27988


Michelle Donovan

Public Relations Manager: Broadcast Media

McMaster University

905-525-9140 ext. 22869