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There's A Hole In My Bucket

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There's a hole in my bucket
Appropriate technology often fails because of a breakdown in communication between planner and people. And no-one likes to talk about sanitation. Arnold Pacey stresses the importance of sensitivity in dealing with this most sensitive of subjects.

WHAT PEOPLE WANT is often quite different from what experts think they need. The medical expert may see the main goal of a sanitation project as the prevention of disease. But villagers or shantydwellers will never see a pit-latrine just as a device for protecting their health.

They may be aware of the health benefits of good sanitation, but many people acquire latrines for much the same reasons as they do glass windows or furniture: for convenience, comfort and status.

Although the purpose of any sanitation project from a medical point of view might be to improve cleanliness and waste-disposal people have their own priorities. A project that conflicts with those priorities is likely to fail. But one which compliments what people already want to do about improving their homes may win widespread acceptance.

In the village of Serowe in Botswana most peoples' homes are traditionally built of mud bricks and thatch. People modernise their homes slowly when they can afford it - a new roof one year, doors and windows the next. Where households have the money and energy to improve their homes they can be encouraged to dig a pit latrine as part of the overall plan.

But where people are very poor it makes no sense to promote the building of subsidised privy huts alongside the leaking roofs of cardboard and mud shanties. Although the latrines might be urgently needed to prevent disease they may have to take second place to other improvements in housing and living standards. As one health worker in Brazil commented: `What's the use of conning people into building privies when they don't even eat enough to use them?'.

In large villages, however, and in places where population is rising fast, latrines may be urgently needed to avert serious health hazards. In this case, if people cannot afford to pay for their own, some kind of subsidy might be justified. But it is important to link any latrine subsidy to other housing improvements otherwise the latrines are likely to be misused - or rather used to satisfy peoples' rather than planner's priorities.

Changing customs
What seems like a 'low cost' latrine to the planner may prove to be a high cost latrine to local families if it takes a long time to clean, is difficult, uncomfortable or embarassing to use, or if it involves radical changes in customs or organisation of family habits. There is no point in persuading people to go through a routine just to please the outside expert. What is wanted is a change that people can accept as part of their lifestyle and that will also have health benefits. An outside agency can hope to stimulate a change of this kind but only the people can carry it through.

Even more important, where there are no nappies or potties, the improvement in hygiene made by any kind of sanitation system may be marginal because children's faeces - often highly effective - are deposited almost randomly while they are at play. This is usually one of the most difficult problems to tackle as well as being the most important for health.

Local materials
Just as it is essential to start with peoples' own aspirations and build on their more positive customs and beliefs about hygiene, so it is important to take fullest advantage of the local materials and skills already available in the village. Comments about latrines becoming part of the local culture are not just rhetoric. If villagers are consulted at every stage, western techniques can be adapted, costs cut, and the technology brought under the control of the community.

A badly-planned, badly-constructed, badly-maintained latrine can create far more serious hygiene problems than existed before it was built. Some low cost latrines are incapable of being cleaned properly. Their floors are of rough porous cement - ideal for harbouring roundworm or hookwork eggs. In some places these diseases are more common in city people with latrines, than in country-dwellers with no sanitation at all.

Invisible Technology
Where it is impossible to keep the latrine clean it may be better to do without. And that is not always such a terrible thing. Many rural communities have their own hygiene culture - a sort of 'invisible technology' often far more effective than many of the various so-called 'appropriate technologies' foisted on unwary villagers.

In some places people organise their excreta disposal with a discipline that partly compensates for lack of sanitation equipment. One example comes from a group of villages in West Bengal. Latrines here are almost non-existent and most people use a special area of land for defecating. Hookworm infestation is very common in this part of India but in these villages the disease seems to be under control. This is because people avoid each others' faeces meticulously and systematically fill the designated area of land from one side to the other to make this possible. The key is good organisation.

The most impressive examples of this are probably to be found in China. Sanitation equipment in the countryside is still very crude - shallow pit latrines, bucket latrines and chamber pots emptied manually into buckets. All this would seem to be very unhealthy. Yet since the 1950s China has made great strides in reducing the incidence of excreta-related diseases such as hookworm and gastro-enteritis. They have achieved this by employing large numbers of people in sanitation teams to empty and clean latrines and to supervise the hygienic composting of wastes. In other words better hygiene was achieved by strengthening the organisation and discipline of sanitation rather than replacing the relatively primitive hardware.

People may not have very good hardware, but they often have excellent software. Without respecting and taking advantage of the software, the hardware - however 'appropriate' in design - will always seem inappropriate to the people.

This article is adopted from a booklet by Arnold Pacey 'Rural sanitation: planning and appraisal' published for Oxfam by Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd.

Did you hear the one about ...

. the communal toilets in Bangladesh and the squat latrines in the Philippines that no-one would use because they were built facing Mecca?

• or the one about the sewage system in Accra that was so expensive only a few hundred people could afford a connection and the huge sewage treatment plant only needs operate for one hour a day. Meanwhile the waste from half a million other city inhabitants is dumped untreated on Ghana's beaches?

• or about the people in Brazil provided with modern flush toilets but no piped water?

• or the refugees in Somalia with barely enough water to drink who were given pour-flush squat latrines requiring over four litres of water to flush them?

• or the expert who visited Rio to check on a slum sanitation project, unlocked the nice solid door of a new latrine built beside a rickety shack to be deluged by pots, pans, a goat and a pile of firewood?

• or the concrete squatting plates supplied to Indonesian villagers who used them to build bridges or broke them up to line their irrigation canals?

• or the Zamboanga housing project in the Philippines where houses on stilts were built over the sea, each with a concrete pedestal toilet connected by pipes to a septic tank on the sea bed beneath. But the movement of the sea continually disconnected the pipes from the tank. What was the point in using the toilets? Instead people grew flowers in the concrete pedestals and continued to relieve themselves straight into the sea.

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