Finding humour, tragedy in that daily ritual


We each spend, on average, three years of our lives going to the toilet – assuming we have one, that is.

Although bodily functions is a topic usually treated as off-limits, the fact that 2.6 billion people are without adequate sanitation facilities is something to be loudly talked about, development activists say.

“Just as HIV/AIDS cannot be discussed without talking frankly about sex, so the problem of sanitation cannot be discussed without talking frankly about s**t,” one Nepali sanitation activist said.

In her new book, “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters”, journalist Rose George embarks on a journey across the world to try to break taboos and erase the shame that accompanies the issue of human waste, as well as expose how big of a health threat the lack of sanitation can be.

disabled day roundtable 051206 toiletIn the belief that “anything can be made talkable”, George traveled for 18 months to the slums of India and Tanzania, climbed down into the sewage systems of New York and London, attended World Toilet Organisation (WTO) conventions in Russia and Thailand, and tested out the hi-tech toilets in Tokyo.

George said one of the funniest moments on her journey was “trying to pee in a public toilet with no doors in China with a line of women watching me. It didn’t seem that funny at the time – it was my first ever experience of a doorless toilet – but now it does.”

The facts presented in the book are less amusing. A single gramme of faeces can contain 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 worm eggs. Faeces not disposed of properly can be carried on people’s shoes, hands and clothes and contaminate water, food and cutlery.

It is estimated that people living in areas with poor sanitation ingest 10 grammes of faecal matter every day. Salmonella and cholera, among many others, are considered water-related diseases because they travel from host to host in water that people use to drink or bathe in.

Shocking toilet habits of the poor

George writes that some “2.2 million people – mostly children – die from an affliction that to most Westerners is the result of bad take-out food”.

Diarrhea is the result of faecal-contaminated water or food and it kills a child every 15 seconds. According to the UN children’s agency UNICEF, diarrhea is a bigger threat to children than AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria. Children without a toilet have to spend many days of the year being sick, and many eventually drop out of school.

If you are lucky enough to be born a woman in Japan, you may own a hi-tech TOTO toilet that can check your blood pressure, play music, spray water and warm air to wash you, vent smells and ensure the seat lid is down. It is might also have a box called the “Flush Princess” that disguises the noise of bodily functions.

If you are a woman in the poorest parts of the world though, and you don’t have a toilet, it means that you have to wake up really early and do what you have to do in the darkness, risking rape and snake bites.

Or you might be born one of the 400,000 to 1.2 million “manual scavengers”, cleaning up faeces from railway tracks or clogged sewers with your bare hands. Manual scavengers are Dalits, members of the lower caste of India’s ancient social system.

malaysia poor indian community poverty 230807“These people are still defecating in the pond. A fly that has touched their faeces is not going to distinguish between Brahmin and Dalit food.

“If you have toilets and they don’t, that means that your food is definitely being contaminated by lower-class faeces,” George quotes Sojan Thomas, director of a sanitation programme, who hopes to appeal to wealthier Indians’ egos.

“The most disgusting situations were encountered in India because open defecation is common,” she said. “Especially in rural India, people are defecating on the roadside, which is pretty disgusting and shocking.

“On the other hand, in the West, where we think we have the best form of sanitation, it is not working properly. It is certainly not as dramatic as in India, but with a rainstorm you can get raw sewage water being discharged in the rivers,” George said.

Societies like India require a lot of effort to convince people to stop open defecation. “You don’t just supply people with free toilets because human beings are very complicated and they may not use them because they are used to going into a bush, in the woods and strangely enjoy it,” George said.

What many campaigners and reformers found out is that it is much harder to convince people that they need a toilet than make them want to own one. Wanting it even for reasons of prestige is much more powerful that telling them that they need it to protect their health.

Making sense of waste

The Millennium Development Goal on sanitation set by the UN – to cut in half the number of people living without adequate sanitation or toilets – has been the hardest target to achieve. In order for it to be met by the 2015 deadline, 95,000 toilets must be installed every day. That translates to one toilet per second, every day, for the next seven years.

George reports from China, where human faeces is sprayed as fertiliser on vegetables and fruits. This is very unhealthy, but it is a practice that has been going on for 4,000 years.

However, China is also the leader in making energy from human excrement. More than 15 million rural houses are connecting their toilets to a biogas digester and using the energy that is produced to run cooking stoves. Pigs are also very helpful in increasing the amount of excreta and therefore energy produced.

poor people“You connect the waste from the pigs too in an underground tank that is digested and you can take out the methane that is produced by the digestion and process it, kind of like a human stomach,” George said.

Biogas has a number of advantages. It saves on conventional energy and wood since it can be used for cooking and lighting. Not needing wood saves on hours of labour and cuts down on deforestation.

In the end, George said she is “cautiously optimistic”.

“This year there has been a bit more attention paid to sanitation,” she noted.

This year, for example, was designated the International Year of Sanitation by the UN and Nov 19 is “World Toilet Day”.


Rose George is an accredited British reporter who lives in London. ‘The Big Necessity’ is her second book.


Mirela Xanthaki’s  MALAYSIAKINI article

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: