World Toilet Day on November 19 brought such a deluge of articles, new reports, infographics, and videos that it’s taken us until now to work through them. International media outlets, when compared to those in the United States, often better convey dynamic technicalities of sanitation systems on multiple scales. But after a review of many articles worldwide, we want to share some of our favorites and not-so-favorites.
Writing in The Guardian, Nathalia Gjersoe points out that access to toilets decreases disease by twice as much as access to clean drinking water while receiving only a fraction of the funding. She blames this situation on the powerful feeling of revolution known as disgust. “So how can we get people to engage with the problem?” she asks. Her short, intriguing inquiry into disgust draws on the research of Paul Rozin and associates. Disgust brings both evolutionary protective behaviors and actions that appear irrational, even magical. “Scientifically literate adults will refuse to eat fudge in the shape of dog turds, to drink from a brand new bedpan or put plastic vomit in their mouth,” she writes. “These objects have never come into contact with disgusting substances yet are nonetheless rejected.” Gjersoe says we have to shift the focus and re-frame the toilet as Jack Sim has done. It is only when fun supplants disgust, when celebrities jump on the World Toilet Day bandwagon, when toilets are cool, that we will make any progress.
In “Flushed with achievement”, Chris Hilton shares an excerpt from London Labour and the London Poor, specifically author Henry Mayhew’s interviews with night-men in mid-19th century London. Teams of four worked under the cover of darkness, descending into cesspits, shoveling fresh excreta into large buckets and hauling it away in a cart to Battle Bridge. There it was dumped in settling ponds, mixed with slaughterhouse blood, thickened with ash and sold as fertilizer. This nutrient cycling ended with Bazalgette’s sewers. “In some respects the mid-Victorian city was greener than that of a hundred years later,” concludes the author. Today’s toilets are machines “for removing our bodily wastes swiftly and making them somebody else’s problem.”
Calling it the “most important report you’ve never heard of,” WASH Advocates CEO John Oldfield plugged UN Water’s Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water, or the GLAAS 2014 report. Available in a multitude of languages, with data from 94 countries, the report demonstrates the positive policy reform coupled with weak capacity and gaps in human resources, a lack of evidence-based data, the need for WASH in schools, a neglect of hygiene promotion, insufficient financing, and failure to scale up affordable services for the poor. Despite an increase in development assistance for water and sanitation, there is continued focus in the aid paradigm on infrastructure rather than support for sustainable service delivery. Oldfield wants us to “make sure the right people across the globe read it.” Based on GLAAS 2014 findings, Oldfield makes strong suggestions to implementing nonprofits. “Work alongside or within government systems…rather than in spite of the local government,” he says, “support those governments’ efforts to develop and strengthen their own capacity to monitor and evaluate WASH efforts rather than imposing your own.” He wants funders to “start with a problem, and fund the appropriate solution set, not vice versa.” They need to focus on community transformation rather than creating dependencies. They must not be tempted by the low-hanging fruit of urban drinking water projects” but to do the difficult work of integrated sanitation systems for rural and peri urban communities. As for building capacity and sustaining impact, Oldfield applauds the approaches of Water for People: Everyone, Forever and IRC’s Water Services that Last.
After warning us to not snicker about World Toilet Day, Lauren Bohn declares “It’s Time to Start Giving a Shit about Toilets.” Writing in Foreign Policy, she wonders how the aid establishment could so long turn a blind eye and focus on everything but sanitation. “Open defecation remains the stinky stepsister of the health development world, overshadowed by star-studded issues such as access to clean water.” Toilet Hackers founder John Kluge claims he was ousted from New York City Fashion Week show for bringing up what he rightly sees as “the base level of all development problems.”
In contrast, an NBC News piece takes a fairly superficial stance noting that a “lack of toilet facilities is no laughing matter. In fact, it’s a deadly serious health crisis.” Yet writer Mark Koba never ventures far from bathroom humor, fecophobia, and the them and us binary. He quotes Tufts University professor William Moomaw: “Think of living in a giant cesspool and then you get some idea of the problem.” Similarly Fordham professor Christina Peppard laments that it’s hard to get past “first-grade jokes” when discussing the issue.
Despite the plethora of available information, many in the US media still appear to see sanitation as exotic, foreign, and distant. They do a good job of laying out the problem, complete with its vicious-circle loops. At the same time, few are documenting the dynamic technical ingenuity that characterizes the evolution of toilet systems in the developing world. Nor have most people seen the need for us rethink our path dependence on unsustainable end-of-pipe technologies, especially in light of water shortages in America’s south- and mid-west, deteriorating sewer infrastructure, and other environmental problems here at home. Let’s consider ways to challenge them – and ourselves – to dig a little deeper next World Toilet Day.