Access to water and sanitation services influences where people make their homes. In developed countries, this process is often taken for granted: sinks, showers, tubs and toilets are drawn into the blueprints and hooked up to water supply systems without a second thought. However, in the developing world, water and sanitation are a crucial part of planning housing and human settlements, and ultimately dictate where people can live. A toilet, then, is not just a toilet. It’s an indication of the quality and security of housing conditions, offering people dignity and protection. Alongside water, access to sanitation services is everyone’s human right. But to date, 4.2 billion people are without access to safely managed sanitation services—that’s over 50% of the global population. For this reason, people across the globe observe World Toilet Day on November 19th, a day about sparking action and “leaving no one behind” as we work to tackle the global sanitation crisis.

Secure tenure and land availability play an important role in realizing universal access to safely managed sanitation. Naturally, land allows both private and public toilets to be built. After some time, the excreta contained in reservoirs needs to be emptied and disposed of, and the final disposal site must be installed on a piece of land, which means installing and disposing of the excreta highly depend on land availability. Without a physical space for sanitation facilities, people are forced to practice open defecation. In fact, 673 million people still practice open defecation worldwide. However, the issue goes beyond toilet construction alone. Insecure land tenure contributes to weak demand and low capacity for sanitation improvements. A lack of land rights often results in low incentive to invest in sanitation, as hardware and infrastructure are seemingly too permanent for such temporary living situations. Additionally, growing population density has created a high demand for low-cost accommodation, meaning that people are increasingly inclined to accept inadequate sanitation conditions within informal tenancy agreements. Without tenure, people are poorly positioned to demand sanitation improvements from their landlords, who feel little or no obligation to provide and maintain sanitation facilities. Furthermore, access to sanitation plays a role in bridging the gender gap and providing equal opportunity for school-age boys and girls. The UN estimates that globally, one-third of schools lack access to basic sanitation facilities. This poses a challenge to female adolescents’ school attendance and reduces their future employment opportunities, especially when compared to their male counterparts.

While the theme of this year’s World Toilet Day is fitting, inclusivity as it pertains to sanitation is not necessarily a choice. The impact of inadequate sanitation extends past just those who lack access. Open defecation resulting from tenure insecurity allows for fecal contamination of open water sources, carrying risk of disease from the poorest communities to the richest ones. Leaving no one behind is everyone’s issue. Recognizing this, Habitat for Humanity prioritizes secure tenure for adequate housing—which includes safe, clean toilets—knowing that land rights lend the ‘hand up’ needed to ensure no one is left behind without sanitation.