South Asian Sanitation Conclave: Who’s afraid of Pee and Poop?

L to R - Darryl D'Monte, Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Nalaka Gunawardene


Who’s afraid of Pee and Poop?

That’s the innocent but slightly provocative question I posed to a South Asian Conclave on sanitation that I addressed today at the Colombo Hilton.

My audience was a group of South Asians – drawn mainly from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – working in government, mainstream media or development agencies, all sharing an interest in water supply and sanitation (wat-san) issues.

I was asked to speak about Telling the Sanitation Story using Moving Images. But after listening to the fairly staid and often technocratic discussions preceding my presentation, I changed it. In doing so, I said that especially in broadcast television, the window of opportunity to attract the viewer is a tight one – it used to be 45 seconds, but these days more likely 30 seconds.

Sanitation is both an issue that is both urgent and important. As I noted on World Toilet Day marked on 19 Nov 2009, 2.5 billion people do not have somewhere safe, private or hygienic to go to the toilet.

And as C. Ajith Kumar of the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) – convenors of the Conclave – reminded us at the outset, South Asia is where most of these people live. Lacking any alternative, more than a billion (yes, 1,000 million) South Asians defecate in the open on a daily basis.

That’s a lot of poop, folks — and it’s completely untreated, uncovered and responsible for too many preventable illnesses and deaths.

Despite this dire emergency at individual and society levels, officials and activists concerned with wat-san issues continue to tip-toe around this poop. Or so it seemed to me — after two days, not once had the words poop or shit been mentioned in discussions. Instead, everyone was using the more politically correct terms such as faeces, excreta and excrement.

“Most of those billion people pooping in the open are not going to understand the lofty terms used in the charmed development circle,” I said. “You’ve got to talk in a language that ordinary, real people can and will understand – that’s the first step in effective communication.”

South Asian Conclave on Sanitation in Colombo, 8 Dec 2009

The meeting had already acknowledged that improving sanitation involved a lot more than providing running water or building toilets. The development experience in the past three decade shows that infrastructure alone does not, automatically, lead to better sanitation. The biggest challenge remains in promoting hygienic practices among all – and that requires behaviour change, a slow and gradual process in any society.

I reminded everyone that when it comes to sanitation, the command-and-control approach that our South Asian governments are so used to adopting just won’t work. There are at least three aspects of life where choices and conduct are strictly personal: what happens in the bed room, bath room (toilet) and the shrine room.

As I summed it up in these words that I asked my audience to reflect on: Governments don’t defecate; people do.

“Please remember this if you really want to reach out and engage ordinary people who are living, breathing and pooping everyday in the real, harsh world.”

More of my presentation will be shared on this blog in the coming days.

Photos by Amal Samaraweera, TVE Asia Pacific

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The Toilet is still a luxury for 2.5 billion people worldwide…

No laughing matter, this...


It had to happen sooner or later: a world day dedicated to, ahem, toilets. When all sorts of public interest causes are claiming the 365 days of our year, it was only a matter of time.

19 November is World Toilet Day – a day to celebrate the humble, yet vitally important, toilet and to raise awareness of the global sanitation crisis. It was established in 2001 by the World Toilet Organization (the other WTO!), a global non- profit organization committed to improving toilet and sanitation conditions worldwide.

The World Toilet Day promotes the importance of toilet sanitation and each person’s right to a safe and hygienic sanitary environment.

Did you know, for instance:
* 2.5 billion people do not have somewhere safe, private or hygienic to go to the toilet?
* One gram of faeces can contain 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 parasite eggs?

Here’s a cool viral video that WaterAid have produced to mark the event:

A third of the world’s population lacks any toilets. The rest of us who do have a toilet don’t always make the most efficient use of it – when we typically use 10 litres of water to flush away one litre of urine, that’s not very thrifty, is it?

On this day, I came across an interesting essay by Debra Shore, Commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, in The Huffington Post. She writes: “Using freshwater in toilets is not smart and it is not sustainable. I believe the homes of the future will be designed to use “grey” water — the water from our washing machines and dishwashers, the water from our showers and from rain captured in barrels and cisterns — to flush our toilets. This kind of redesign of water use, both residential and industrial, will be one of the growth industries of coming decades.”

She adds: “So, on World Toilet Day, here is my plea: monitor your water use. Think about ways to conserve water. And consider how lucky we are.”

Rose George, author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters says toilets are a privilege that nearly half the world still lacks. At least 2.6 billion people around the planet have no access to a toilet — and that doesn’t just mean that they don’t have a nice, heated indoor bathroom. It means they have nothing — not a public toilet, not an outhouse, not even a bucket. They defecate in public, contaminating food and drinking water, and the disease toll due to unsanitized human waste is staggering. George notes that 80% of the world’s illnesses are caused by fecal matter.

Read more: Toilet Tales: Inside the World of Waste, by Bryan Walsh in TIME, Nov 2008

Calculate your water footprint

Blog post in July 2007: A Silent Emergency: More television sets than toilets!

Blog post in July 2007: Faecal Attraction: There’s no such thing as a convenient flush…