To hear the rationale for the space shuttle's $23.4 million toilet or learn from Herodotus that "in Egypt, women stand erect to make water; the men stoop," you need consult but one source, The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. Released this fall, it is journalist Rose George's account of three years exploring the world of toilets.
Though it covers much more, the author says the book was inspired by the plight of those without sanitation: Some 2.6 billion people, she says, "don't even have a bucket."
Miller-McCune.com talked to George during a recent visit to Washington, D.C., for a book signing sponsored by Path and Water Advocates. In that talk, she offered a chilling statistic: "A child is killed every 15 seconds" by water-related diseases due to the lack of sanitation.
And George said it's not solely a matter of poverty. "It's possible to have a malnourished child in a well-fed family — where they've got no latrine. You've got open defecation; it's getting tracked back into the village; it's getting into food; it's getting into water. The kid is ingesting toxic material with every mouthful."
Rules of the Road
George, who makes her home in the United Kingdom, spent more than three years traveling the world, exploring toilets, sewers, latrines and the people who use them.
Though warned that it might be difficult to get people to open up about such a touchy subject, she said that even among the most conservative communities, she encountered plenty of people eager to talk about human waste and the customs and instruments dedicated to its disposal.
It depends, she said, on how you approach the topic. When it comes to "poop," she added, "Everyone has a story to tell."
While on the road in rural China, she and her translator pulled into a service station, both badly needing to use the bathroom. Taking their places at the end of a long queue, they were approached by some of the local women who were also waiting in line. As a courtesy to their foreign visitor, the women implored George to move to the head of the queue and take her turn before theirs.
George said it was all she could do to resist their entreaties, noting that the "bathroom" had no door and offered no privacy. She preferred to be last. "It was wide open and they could see everything," George said.
The experience was an epiphany. "Humans are very adaptable," George said, adding that the concept of privacy regarding bodily functions, which we take for granted, is a relatively recent development and apparently not a cultural value of particular importance in the countryside of China.
What villagers in rural China do consider important, George discovered, is the contents of latrines. She writes that "night soils" have been used to treat agricultural lands in China throughout history, giving rise to mythic heroes who cart around dung and to sections in bookstores dedicated to "toilet culture."
Today with energy the focus of worldwide attention, China's rural villagers have begun to experiment with a new use for night soils.
George tells the story of activist Wang Ming Ying, who promotes household biogas generators across China. The generators employ biological digesters to convert human waste into methane, providing an alternative fuel source for home heating, cooking and lighting.
George writes that while Ying's initial goal was to protect trees bordering agricultural lands from rapacious harvesting, the biogas initiative has yielded additional benefits. A resident of Da Li, one of the villages enrolled in the campaign, says biogas has brought about three changes in village life: "Human and national excreta is now turned into a treasure. Households are much cleaner. Neighbors have a better relationship."
The Chinese government hopes to expand the initiative to have 80 million digesters in the populace by 2020.
Better Business in South Asia
The champions of sanitation George writes about are complex and come with diverse motivations and avocations.
For more on this topic, check out our Miller-McCune.com story on the ecological backlash.
In India, at the extreme end of the human-waste-aversion scale, where fecal material is the very definition of taboo, the thankless and poorly paying task of hand cleaning latrines has traditionally fallen upon the caste known as Dalits, or untouchables. Though the practice has been outlawed for decades, owing to crushing poverty, there is no shortage of takers for this terrible job.
Nevertheless, in Delhi, Bindeshwar Pathak — drawing upon the Gandhian spirit and a knack for business — is fighting to liberate this downtrodden class. He invented and distributes a pit latrine that requires neither water nor human labor to keep clean, thus eliminating the proximate reason for an oppressed labor force.
Pathak, however, compensates by steering displaced Dalits into education and job-training programs through his Sulabh International Social Service Organization. The non-governmental group also touts the ecological benefit of its initiative. (And, to keep it all interesting, Pathak founded and operates the "world's best-known toilet museum.")
Sulabh's Web site says 120,000 "scavengers" have been "liberated and set free," and that 10 times that number of Sulabh toilets have been installed. But acceptance of new ways doesn't automatically trump generations of practice.
In George's book, she recounts a health worker saying, "I was given a couple of latrines five years ago, and I never used them. I preferred to just go sit by the river with the rushing water, and the wind in my hair." But a workshop that George writes about changed his mind.
Through community-led total sanitation, residents of towns in Bangladesh cajole, shame, coax and horrify one another into adopting safe, healthful and sustainable sanitation involving everyone in the community.
It's an uphill battle. As CLTS developer Kamal Kar wrote in a 2003 working paper, "Access to latrines in rural areas of Bangladesh is less than 15 percent. Many international agencies and non-governmental organisations have been working to improve environmental sanitation by constructing latrines and toilets with subsidies provided at different rates. But even after three decades of such efforts it is difficult to find 100 villages from amongst nearly 85,000 that are totally sanitised and free from open defecation."
Still, as a result of these programs, supported by NGOs from around the world, George said her health-worker acquaintance now says, "I've seen the light I'm going to go and use my latrine."
We're facing a different set of challenges with sanitation in the West. With the pressures mounting on municipal treatment systems, tightening water supplies and dangers of coastal pollution, industrialized nations, too, must begin steering a course toward more sustainable waste-disposal practices.
That's something George says people can start doing right now.
"Think about your water consumption — whether you really need to flush your toilet 10 times a day — maybe you can flush it seven times a day so you're taking pressure off the sewer system," she said.
"People can very practically write to their representative and say, 'What are you doing in this International Year of Sanitation when 2.6 million people don't even have a bucket?'"
Whether you call it poop, human waste or prefer a more colorful term, George said don't be afraid to talk about it.
"It's the building block for all sorts of other development," George said. "Sanitation really needs attention — and affection."