New Internationalist

Stand up, stand up for toilets…

Issue 414

Toilet champions are not so rare a breed as you’d think. Here are some distinguished exemplars.

Bills Clinton and Gates, Matt Damon and Chris Martin have all associated their names with campaigns for clean water. But do they mention the faecal contamination and lack of toilets, which make ‘dirty’ water a threat? Never.

‘Goodwill Ambassadors’ are three a penny when it comes to child distress. But the urgent need to tackle the second highest child killer, diarrhoea, by astute deployment of a potty and a basin of soapy water does not fall trippingly from their lips.

In Victorian times celebrities were less squeamish. ‘A good sewer,’ declared John Ruskin, ‘is far nobler and a far holier thing than the most admired Madonna ever painted.’ Would that Madonna thought the ‘excrementious effluvia’ of African babies similarly worthy of her attention.

When Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer into the Thames was opened in 1865, the Prince of Wales, Lord Mayor of London, Archbishop of Canterbury and 500 dignitaries enjoyed a banquet of salmon while London’s excreta gushed forth beneath them. In this International Year of Sanitation, a photo op with a religious or royal personage sitting on a lavatorial throne has so far failed to materialize.

Most of today’s international dignitaries can barely be brought to say the ‘t’ word. The ‘s’ word or mention of the act itself is miles beyond them. But fortunately, there are some people – albeit not household names – who unabashedly assume the role of toilet champions. Thank goodness. But it is not an easy calling.

Here we encounter just a few, all male. Despite the many stalwart women on today’s excretory frontier, there is no ‘Ms Toilet’ like ‘Mr Toilet’ of South Korea. Few female public health engineers have tinkered with vent-pipes or plasticized ‘sanplats’ (as have Peter Morgan and Björn Brandberg, neither of whom is profiled but would well deserve it). And no woman has taken on a worldwide mission to explain the evils of ‘open defecation’ to millions who deposit their kaka on the ground. At least, not yet…

Kamal Kar

Originally, Kamal Kar – a West Bengali – specialized in livestock production and natural resources management, using participatory methods to train extension workers. But in 1999 he found himself applying his experience to a very different issue: the failure of sanitation to take off in crowded and disease-prone rural Bangladesh. 

The ‘community-led total sanitation’ or CLTS approach Kar then pioneered has since become a lodestar in sanitation. The idea is that the whole community must collectively agree to change their behaviour – there is no point in persuading a few people to set an example by installing a toilet if everyone else is still dumping their detritus on the ground.

Kar believes that no toilet should be subsidized – this inhibits people’s ownership of a behavioural problem only they can resolve. Views vary on the subsidy aspect, but the CLTS mobilizing strategy is hugely impressive. To get communities to abandon the great outdoors, Kar’s shock-tactic strategy is to point out on a ‘walk of shame’ around the visible turds of the parish that people are eating each other’s shit.

Confrontation with this realization is carefully managed. The ills of ‘open defecation’ are discussed, sites of waste deposit visited and mapped, and the volume of excreta left in the open added up. The accumulated evidence and the shame prompts conversion to the doctrine of ‘open defecation-free’ behaviour. The community itself decides to build toilets and monitor delinquents, whose depository misdeeds are flagged with their names.

It is not always easy to keep converted communities on the straight and narrow – especially after their facilities are no longer pristine and the initial shock has petered out. All the same, Kar’s methodology, now introduced in over 25 countries, has managed to ‘trigger’ mass adoption of toilets in a speedy and no-nonsense way. It has placed the onus for toiletization firmly on ‘adopters’, not on authorities or sanitary engineers.

Bindeshwar Pathak

As a child, Bindeshwar Pathak was once made to ingest cow-dung and urine to purify his soul – because he, a Brahmin, had touched a ‘scavenger’ (handler of human wastes). In 1968, appalled at the stigma they endured, he began to live among scavengers, refuting the scriptural basis of ‘untouchability’. In 1970, he launched his Sulabh Sanitation Movement to campaign against scavenging and offer a redemptive toilet technology.

Pathak installed his first shauchalaya, or two-pit pour-flush lavatorial creation, in a Bihari town in 1973. The essential feature was that the flushing of wastes into closed alternating pits would mean that no-one ever had to handle raw excreta. The next year he opened his first Sulabh Complex: a community block with toilets, urinals, bathing and laundry facilities staffed around the clock, which people paid a tiny amount to use.

This became a model: today Sulabh blocks are common in towns throughout India, with over 7,500 operational and literally millions of daily customers. This has meant the liberation of around 60,000 scavengers. Another 1.2 million Sulabh-style toilets have been installed in homes where sewered facilities are unfeasible. Costs range from around $10 to around $1,000 depending on size and construction quality.

Pathak has also promoted the use of the human output in the larger Sulabh complexes for biogas production and (odourless) liquid manure. His first biogas plant was established in 1982, and 118 more have followed.

The other side of the equation – social integration – has also received Pathak’s attention. In 1993, he appealed to the élite to engage socially with dalits. Prime Minister IK Gujral was one of those who responded and adopted a scavenger family.

Pathak has gathered two doctorate degrees for his theses on scavenging, and has won a number of international prizes. His movement today boasts 60,000 volunteers advancing the Sulabh doctrine. His philosophy of social justice can be simply summarized: human dignity via clean and sustainable toilets for all. 

Feliciano dos Santos

Dubbed the ‘Elton John of Mozambique’, 44-year-old Feliciano dos Santos is a rock star who sings about toilets and clean water. Born in a remote village in the northern province of Niassa, dos Santos grew up not only poor but disabled by polio – a disease of dirt and poor sanitation. 

The singer has turned these unmentionable topics into popular songs because he knows how important they are to people’s lives. Determined that others should not suffer as he did, he set up an NGO called Estamos in 1996.

What makes Estamos so successful is that it uses the high-profile status of Santos’ band, Massukos, and the power of music to disseminate public health messages. ‘In Africa,’ says dos Santos, ‘songs are powerful. We use them to reach people and pass a message.’ One of Massukos’ most popular songs is called ‘Wash your Hands’.

‘When we go to villages and start playing, people drop what they are doing and run to listen to us,’ says dos Santos. He and his team then discuss the need for water points, protecting water from contamination, and building low-cost toilets. Many build ‘ecosan’ toilets that compost human waste. Families using them report fewer diseases, higher crop yields and improved soil retention.

‘When we visit the village again later, we see how things have changed. We ask how many people were hospitalized for diarrhoea, if their crops are more abundant, if they are doing better. Neighbouring villages see the progress and want to participate. And we reinforce the message on the radio and through music.’

Massukos was voted best band in Mozambique in 2003 and also has a strong following in Europe – Dos Santos performed at this year’s Glastonbury festival. Watch out for his sanitary repertoire if you catch him live.

(contributed by Veronique Mistiaen)

Uno Winblad

When Swedish architect and planner Uno Winblad worked in Addis Ababa in the 1960s, he faced problems which defied all conventional sanitation solutions. He needed a system that would not be affected by rainwater flooding and overflowing pits, nor require underground networks of pipes. His subsequent support for ‘sanitation without water’ reverted to the idea of composting systems.

Winblad thereupon became an ardent exponent – in theory and practice – of ‘ecological sanitation’. The international climate was initially hostile but gradually others joined his crusade, so evidently sensible was the ‘ecosan’ thesis. In a nutshell, this is that flushing squanders precious water, pollutes the environment, and discards nutrients valuable to agriculture. In environments which are poor, often short of food, and suffer high rates of excreta-related infection, composting has outstanding virtues.

In 1993, Winblad obtained backing from SIDA (the Swedish Government’s aid agency) for a major ecosan research and development programme, with projects in China, Vietnam, South Africa, Mexico and elsewhere, to carry out ‘dry’ and ‘urine-diverting’ toilet experiments. In 1998, the first edition of Ecological Sanitation was published. In 2001, the first ecosan international conference, in China, marked the moment at which cynics had to accept that ‘dry sanitation’ and ‘nutrient recycling’ were here to stay. Winblad was central to these landmarks, entrenching ‘eco’ on the sanitary map.

There are today a large number of ecosan technologies, some which recycle excreta, some which merely sanitize it prior to disposal. Winblad, a purist, regards urine-diversion (UD) as essential: urine contains most of the nutrients and is virtually sterile, so for many reasons (including smell) is better captured separately. Many exponents today emphasize recycling and insist that ecosan is an approach not a technology. UD or no UD, without Winblad’s persistence, the alternative to the water-flush might still be struggling for recognition.

Sim Jae-duck

The most extraordinary toilet advocate in the world is Sim Jae-duck, a 74-year-old Korean MP. Sim recently presided over the inaugural meeting of the World Toilet Association (WTA), a newcomer competing with Singapore’s World Toilet Organization (WTO) for pride of international lavatorial place.

Sim served as Mayor of Suweon, 40 kilometres south of Seoul, from 1995 to 2002. His campaign to transform public facilities into ‘clean and beautiful resting-places imbued with culture’, with flowers, paintings, and gardens, earned him the name of Mayor Toilet. In 1999 he launched the Korea Toilet Association. Now he has gone international.

Early in 2007, Sim tore down his family home, and set about building the world’s first Haewoojae or Toilet House, a mansion of steel, glass and white concrete shaped like a huge toilet bowl, with a white ‘seat’ for a roof. ‘I was born in a restroom. My grandmother advised my mother that people born in a restroom enjoyed a long life.’ Now he can expect to die in one.

The Haewoojae means ‘a place where one can solve one’s worries’. The 420-square-metre house has three deluxe bathrooms and a showcase loo at the very heart of the ‘bowl’. Made of glass, it can be seen from the sitting-room, but the minute someone enters music plays, and a mist is generated, rendering the walls opaque. Haewoojae, according to its owner, is a symbol of Korea’s advanced toilet culture. Its flushes use 70 per cent less water than the average toilet, are supplied by a roof-top rainwater tank, and a solar-powered energy system purifies the sewage.

Sim has offered to rent out his Haewoojae for an overnight stay costing $50,000. Proceeds will be spent on improving toilet facilities in less fortunate parts of the world. ‘My dream is for the whole world to work together to allow everyone to enjoy sanitary, cultural and environment-friendly toilet facilities,’ Sim announced when he unveiled his giant restroom to the world.

What about us?

Is there any way of opting out of water-profligate ‘flushing’, and instead composting our wastes for garden use? Yes, there is – if you live in a place where you can be flexible in your toilet arrangements and have space.

The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT www.cat.org.uk) in Wales has two items to recommend: a composting toilet, and a device called the Aquatron, both supplied by a company called Solution Elements (www.solutionelements.co.uk).

The composting toilet (can be urine-diverting) requires that sawdust or water be added as necessary to stop the mixture becoming too wet or too dry. Urine diversion is preferable: smells are mostly caused by mixing urine with shit because urea decomposes to ammonia and stinks. 

The Aquatron is a device fitted to the out-pipe of a flush toilet (has to be less than 25 metres from the bowl) which separates urine and shit. Any liquid’s inclination to stick to the sides enables pee to be channeled away, while the shit falls down into a composting chamber. CAT use this for their public flush toilets, and say it works fine with a check and clean every now and again.

Further information: www.cat.org.uk


Other information sources

Many international organizations work on sanitation, and the International Year of Sanitation website http://esa.un.org/iys has links to all the key bodies. A web search on ecological sanitation provides other ecosan sources and products.

Most literature on alternative sanitation is of the ‘here’s how to build it’ variety; check out WEDC, Loughborough and Practical Action Consulting (which used to be Intermediate Technology Development Group). Plan-UK and IDS Sussex recently published a handbook on community-led total sanitation, downloadable from www.plan-uk.org   Toilet history can be found on the web, e.g. at www.sulabhtoiletmuseum.org  A straightforward book covering the whole subject is The Last Taboo: Opening the Door on the Global Sanitation Crisis by Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett, (Earthscan 2008).

Web searches will produce video links, but this is not a popular subject for movies. However, Television Trust for the Environment (TVE) has some recent offerings at www.tve.org . And the National Film Board of Canada has produced a brave documentary about whether sewers are compounding our waste problems. This industrialized-world take on waste disposal and risks to public health is called Crapshoot: The Gamble with our Wastes www.nfb.ca/films/fiche/?id=51166

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