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[NEW YORK] Daily tidal inundations are just one of the reasons that flushing a toilet in Fiji’s informal settlements can pose serious complications.

“You either press a button or you pour-flush the toilet, and the waste then just goes out into a metal drum that’s sitting just above the surface of the ground,” Dani Barrington, a research fellow at the International Water Centre and Monash University, tells SciDev.Net as the UN marks World Toilet Day on 19 November. The event was conceived to raise awareness on the importance of sanitation and waste management, and that 2.4 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation and 1 billion people still defecate in the open.

“When water comes in every day with the tide, it mixes all the waste water around the community,” she says. “The kids play in puddles, which are partly industrial waste, tidal inflow and waste water from houses.”

Barrington, who has a background in environmental engineering, works with communities living in informal settlements in Fiji to help raise awareness about what happens after they flush their toilets.

She says the awareness campaign reflects a broader move within development towards focusing on the back-end of toilets or waste management. This shift is reflected in the text of the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 goals that define global environmental, social and economic priorities for the next 15 years.

Barrington emphasises the importance of involving communities in identifying appropriate solutions for their situations rather than imposing any one specific technological solution.

Access to toilets in Fiji's informal settlements also involves addressing economic barriers, Vasiti Seruvatu Qionimacawa, a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programme manager with Live & Learn Fiji, tells SciDev.Net.

“People know they need to have an improved toilet but the ability to pay [for this] is very poor,” says Qionimacawa.

Typhoid outbreaks after natural disasters are one of the reasons these communities are aware of the need to find new solutions for WASH, she says.

Other challenges stem from the changing environment and changing weather patterns. El Niño is a current concern for WASH because it is causing severe drought in Fiji and other Melanesian countries, says Qionimacawa.

Local teams are already designing toilets that can be used during El Niño and natural disasters while teams in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are designing and redesigning their toilets to adapt to climate change.

“[They are] designing a mobile toilet that you can put away when there is flooding or you can carry to another place,” says Qionimacawa.

She adds that although policymakers in Fiji have made recent improvements in sanitation, more awareness is needed about the particular challenges of informal settlements, numbering almost 700 scattered across Fiji.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.