In honor of World Toilet Day (Yes, there really is a World Toilet Day), I’m posting an essay I wrote some years ago, which was published in the Op-Ed section of a regional newspaper in LA.
I am rich. I know it because I start out every day flushing the toilet – a privilege 40 percent of the world does not have.
I step into the shower where for 10 minutes tiny liquid spears massage my body. I need the flowing water to wake me up. I brush my teeth. I empty the dog’s dish and fill it with clean water free of dust and minuscule debris. I fill the kettle to make a pot of tea. I rinse my strawberries and drink a glass of cool water to quench last night’s thirst. Throughout the morning I will drink one or two cups of tea and as much water. And I will go to the pool where I will shower before and after I swim in thousands of gallons of sanitized liquid – the most precious substance on the planet.
I have a seemingly limitless supply of water. One billion of my neighbors on this planet do not even have a cup full. More than one in six people cannot safely take a drink of water.
While those who lack clean water would be amazed at my home, car, clothes, and even my food, which comes wrapped in plastic, they would also be in awe of my two toilets, four sinks, automatic ice maker and bottled water. As I let the faucet run while I absent-mindedly look for something in the fridge, three children die of diseases long-forgotten in this country because they don’t have clean water.
While I worry about how to get books into our schools so children in my community can learn to read, many girls do not go to school at all because there is no place for them to go to the bathroom. Or, as the report put it, “for want of latrines.” In Africa, the lack of a private hole in the ground is preventing girls from growing up to be self-sufficient women.
We are obsessed with oil, as if it were the most important liquid. But water is what gives life. Oil gives lifestyle. The fact that we are free to worry about oil is in itself an indicator of how rich we are.
Of course, we never like to think about limits on our resources, so we use water to create lifestyle too. Millions of gallons of water are dedicated to making our lawns green and our flowers perpetually bloom.
In Las Vegas, where all our excesses are on display, enormous fountains evaporate into the arid atmosphere. We would be shocked if someone stood on the sidewalk and threw money in the air, but we do not even consider the water disappearing before our eyes.
A few years ago a financial columnist ran a debate with her readers about who was rich. One man said he took a European vacation every year, but he did not consider himself wealthy. Others were offended by the columnist’s suggestion that a person who owned a car was well-off. It seems each person has their own definition of what it means to be rich.
Today, mine includes drinking as much as I want and choosing which of my two bathrooms I would like to use. The deep sense of calm I get from pulling my body through the pool will be a wonder today because I will be floating in wealth.
I cannot take my water and mail it to a thirsty child in Africa the way a precocious toddler in the United States would send her unwanted vegetables in a crumpled envelope. I cannot ship my bathroom to the 2.6 billion people who do not have basic sanitation.
But I can know my place in the world. And that is the start of understanding my responsibility. That is how I begin to make a difference.