The availability of a working toilet is close to the heart of anyone who has backpacked around the developing world, but there are more serious beniefits to having a clean and private place to go to the loo. 

Today is World Toilet Day.  Not as romantic as Valentine’s Day nor as fun-filled as St Patrick’s perhaps, but much more important. 

While a vast majority of the world's population has access to mobile phones, one third of humanity – 2.5 billion people - do not have access to proper sanitation, including adequate toilets. This has huge consequences for health, dignity, the environment, and wider social and economic development.

Progressio understands the need for safe, environmentally friendly toilet systems in rural communities and so, this summer, a team of UK volunteers completing their International Citizen Service (ICS) travelled with Progressio to Nicaragua, where nearly half the population do not have access to adequate sanitation and 300 children die each year from illnesses caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.

William Pauffley, 22, from Hertford, was one of 17 volunteers who went to the Masaya region of Nicaragua, where he worked for 10 weeks alongside fellow UK and local Nicaraguan volunteers to build 30 new eco latrines.

“Some of the existing latrines were in a pretty terrible state when we arrived, with up to 20 people using the same single long-drop toilet.” says William. “Waste would seep into the surrounding land and permeate the ground water, leading to all sorts of disease for the surrounding population.” 

With the volunteers’ help, every family in the village received a new eco latrine. The latrines serve a dual purpose – they keep the waste sealed so surrounding water is not contaminated, and store it until it biodegrades and can eventually be used for compost. 

The work could be tough, says Katie Exell, 21, a student at Durham University. 

“Some days we’d have to move 400 very heavy bricks from the bottom of a hill to the top –a challenge for those of us not used to much physical exercise, let alone construction work in intense heat,” she says. “But working alongside the local volunteers I was amazed at how efficient we became once we got into the swing of it.” 

Volunteers soon began to see the fruits of their labour, says fellow volunteer Jemma Reid, 19, who is now studying International Relations at the Open University. 

“Our work helped so many members of the community become more educated about why the traditional latrines were so damaging to health, the environment and hygiene,” Jemma says. “It also gave economically deprived households a cheap way of fertilising their crops and gave them access to a new source of income through selling compost. Most importantly, families can go to the toilet without fear of contracting any illness through usage.”

So is World Toilet Day worth celebrating? Nottingham-based ICS volunteer Matthew Cooke thinks it is. 

“When I first found out I’d be spending the summer building toilets I did have some reservations,” he says. “But while it wasn’t exactly glamorous, I soon realised that toilets are absolutely a basic need. It's not an embarrassing subject. It's not stupid. We all need to go, but a huge part of the world’s population is not able to do so safely. That needs to change, and World Toilet Day is vital in showing us that.”

If you want to find out more about building an eco latrine, watch Dan Hitchin-Samson's video 

And you can read Katie's blog on beginning building work