We have nothing to loos but our chains

On World Toilet Day, a new film explains why universal access to sanitation is both possible and necessary.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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A pregnant African woman is sitting in a pristine bathroom on a shining white toilet pedestal. ‘As a child growing up in Sudan, we never had toilets. We had to use pit latrines. Sometimes, in the evenings, we had to go to the nearest forest. You wipe yourself with the hot stones or leaves. You might use it even though it’s been used before! You can’t even afford to buy old newspapers to use them.’

Tiba is an Eritrean refugee living in London. She appreciates far more than native Brits the importance of good sanitation. That’s why she is the star of a new documentary by the British educational charity WORLDwrite called Flush It. As Tiba notes in the film, 65 per cent of people in Eritrea and Sudan don’t have access to any kind of sanitation, so they end up having to defecate near to the rivers where they wash, with all the potential for contamination that involves. In villages, people have to dig pits for their toileting needs, which fill up after six months or a year and must be covered over and left for five or six years before the same spot can be used again. Woe betide anyone unfortunate enough to wander across the covered pit in the meantime.

It is the experience of people like Tiba that also informs World Toilet Day, marked on 19 November each year. (Happy World Toilet Day, everyone.) As Rose George notes in her new book, The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste, 2.6billion people don’t have sanitation. When you think that ‘sanitation’ can include ‘an outhouse or a rickety shack that empties into a filthy drain or pigsty’, the bar has not exactly been set very high. ‘Four in 10 people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket or box… [they] live in situations where they are surrounded by human excrement’, says George.

Thus, billions of people are denied the most basic of human services whereas developed nations have had such things for a century or more. In Flush It, Tiba visits the remarkably ornate Crossness Pumping Station on the banks of the Thames. Built in 1865, the pumps were used to suck the shit out of London’s newly built sewage system designed by Joseph Bazalgette.

The absence of sanitation has deadly consequences. Rose George notes: ‘A gram of faeces can contain 10million viruses, one million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 worm eggs.’ According to George, poor sanitation causes 10 per cent of the world’s illnesses. Diarrhoea, of which 90 per cent of cases are linked to poor sanitation, kills a child every 15 seconds around the world.

As the ebullient Terry Woolliscroft, manager of a toilet manufacturer in Stoke-on-Trent, declares in Flush It: ‘The flushing toilet revolutionised health because it got sewage off the streets, safely underground, out of harm’s way… The flushing toilet will help health and standards of living no matter where in the world they are used.’

Of course, nobody believes the provision of good toilet and sewage facilities for 40 per cent of the world’s population will happen overnight. But the problem is clearly not a technical one. In fact, the kind of systems developed by the Victorians could be done more easily today thanks to a host of developments in materials and engineering. The problem, instead, is a political one, and it has been for decades.

The political barriers to providing sanitation for everyone have been made worse in recent years, by the contemporary outlook that suggests ‘small is beautiful’ and big solutions to problems should be avoided. As the writer James Heartfield notes in Flush It, the Victorians saw the world as one they could shape using their creativity, where the aim was to make as big an impact as possible in the interests of human welfare. Today, the default attitude is to reduce our ‘footprint’ on the planet. Rather than regard the lack of sanitation as a planetary emergency, the conclusion reached by many today is that it is better for people to shit in unsanitary holes in the ground than to build anything as grand as a modern sewage system.

So Flush It shows us how some green Londoners like to spend their time building composting toilets – at substantial expense – so that they can return their waste products to Mother Earth. Even Rose George, having explored the world of sanitation, seems almost as obsessed with the environmental impact of toilets in the West as she is with the problem of providing toilets for people in the developing world. ‘I read about a cleaner new world where people put out their bins full of fecal compost to be collected on a Monday, like they do with garbage’, she writes. She also praises the poet WH Auden who apparently limited his guests to one sheet of loo paper per visit.

How we might best provide sanitation facilities for all is a matter for the engineers. But providing them should be a political and social priority for governments everywhere, because the toll of disease and filth that accompanies the lack of sanitation is a blight on societies, a drag on development, and a cause of suffering on a gigantic scale. Providing everyone in the world with the smallest room is one of the biggest problems we need to solve. Surrendering to green prejudices about what is ‘appropriate’ and ‘sustainable’ can only prolong this unnecessary suffering.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. For more details about the WORLDwrite film Flush It, including how to buy a copy, visit here.


Trailer for the new WORLDwrite film, Flush It.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons wrote a brief history of the toilet. In an interview with Brendan O’Neill, De Roy Kwesi Andrew said ‘Bob Geldof, you are not our messiah’. Nathalie Rothschild saw a WORLDwrite documentary which demanded Sir Bob Geldof give us some focking answers. Mick Hume argued that Africa has become a stage for political poseurs and, a year after the G8 Gleneagles summit and the Live 8 concerts, David Chandler said it was time to make lecturing Africa history. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

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