A study in the Lao People's Democratic Republic indicates that low-cost, village-wide efforts to improve sanitation have powerful benefits that cascade across income and age groups.

Hand sanitizer. Face masks. Air filters. Hygiene has taken center stage for the past year as a critical defense against COVID-19. Sanitation and hygiene are critical not just for preventing transmission of respiratory disease, but for fighting the spread of gastrointestinal infections that stunt children's growth and cognitive development and limit their lifetime economic potential.

Global access to basic sanitation facilities improved from 56% in 2000 to 74% in 2017, according to a WHO/UNICEF study. Despite this major progress toward achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 – universal access to clean water and sanitation – nearly 700 million people still practice open defecation today. Due to their remoteness and poverty, rural communities lag urban areas in access to modern sanitation facilities that separate people from human waste, such as flush toilets and septic tanks.

A version of this article appears in the print on April 26, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.