Urgent matters

UN's World toilet day (November 19) reminds us that there are still 2.5 billion people without access to toilets. Lots of work remains to be done to solve this elemental need.

Living in Western Europe, it‘s easy to forget how fortunate we are to have left the shit behind us. Just flush, and it’s out of sight, out of mind.

Yet, it wasn‘t very long ago that the Seine in Paris and the Thames in London where known as the Great Stinks. Indeed, in 1858 the drapes of the waterfront windows of the Houses of Parliament were doused with chlorine to mask the smell. Politicians debated with their noses covered by handkerchiefs. Finally, they decided to have a Grand Sewer (derived from seaward) constructed, which took London’s poo further down the river to dump it there. Albeit untreated.

This tale comes from Rose George‘s book The Big Necessity, which follows her down into the same sewer more than a century later. Later, she travels the world to see how people elsewhere are dealing with this primal urge of defecation. Her findings are astonishing as well as breathtakingly and hilarious. Did you know, for example that public loo's in China don't have doors and that they're called ni hao's (like 'hello’). The concept of privacy when you drop your pants, so evident in the west, is missing there completely. Everybody has the same needs, so why bother hiding?

She also visits India, the ground zero of hygiene where open defecation is a cultural heritage. According to George, 200.000 tones of human faeces are deposited in India every day. 155 thousand trucks loads worth get dumped along the fields, roads and especially railroad lines. Programmes to improve the situation by providing latrines or community toilets often fail. Because toilets are badly constructed, not cleaned or maintained. So people prefer to go ‘out there in the open with the wind in their sails.’ The problem is, of course, the contamination of drinking or washing water, and the spread of diseases. Worldwide, two thousand children and toddlers die of diarrhoea every day.

In China, George finds out that pigsties and toilets are often the same things. Farmers have learned to assemble all poo available and spread it back onto the land. ‘There are reasons not to eat salads in China', George writes dryly, 'and why the sizzling woks are so sizzling.' New times however ask for new measures. And that is: using all muck available for the generation of biogas. In characteristic directive style, the Chinese government has decided that 80 million biogas digesters have to be operational by 2020. Excrement is a much too valuable source of fertilizer and fuel to leave behind in a grass-covered hole on the ground (called maokeng). 'Young people don't want maokeng anymore,’ George cites a jolly village leader, Mr. Zhou.

When George‘s book came out in 2008, there were 2,6 billion people without a toilet. The current number according to the UN World Toilet Day is 2,5 billion. So there's progress. But most of all, there’s work to be done. Over the years, TU Delta has reported on TU researchers working on sanitation projects in Africa, the design of a public toilet in India, converting human waste into power and improved sewage water treating plants. And we will continue to do so.

--> Rose George, The Big Necessity, the unmentionable world of human waste and why it matters, Picador, 2008, 304 pages, 16,50 Euro.