Toilets for all! A brief history of the WC

The seventh World Toilet Summit kicks off in New Delhi tomorrow, and its message is clear: people in the developing world need lavatories.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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Tomorrow, the seventh World Toilet Summit will open in New Delhi, India. For four days, delegates from around the globe will gather to discuss a variety of sanitation topics. Perhaps the most fundamental point is that billions of people still don’t have access to this most basic requirement for civilised and hygienic living.

Delegates arriving in New Delhi can look forward to an accompanying expo, opened by former Miss Universe Yukta Mookhey, before an evening ‘cultural programme and dinner’ at the Bulgarian Embassy. Later in the four-day programme of events, there will be various presentations, including ‘Toilets on the Television: a critical sanitation message in the global media context’; ‘Developing New Public Toilet Standards: 50 public toilets in Hanover, Germany’; and ‘Basic Onsite Dry Sanitation: when did we last look down the pits?’. It’s a tragedy that my invitation got lost in the post. I was particularly looking forward to the Bulgarian Embassy trip.

If occasionally the delegates sound like they might be talking crap, as opposed to talking about how we should deal with it, there is a deadly serious side to the proceedings. Almost 400,000 children in India die each year from diarrhoea as a result of not having access to clean water. The summit website provides us with another shocking statistic: ‘2.6 billion people, more than 40 per cent of the world population, do not use a toilet, but defecate in the open or in unsanitary places.’ Even in New Delhi itself, a metropolis of 14million people in a country that is experiencing fairly rapid growth, at least a fifth of the population are not connected to a sewage system. Things are much worse in the rural developing world.

One of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals is to reduce that number by 50 per cent by 2015. If ever there was a single statistic that made the case for rapid economic development, it is the fact that even if that goal was achieved – and it will probably entail giving the poor composting toilets rather than pristine whiteware – there will still be a billion people living in thoroughly unsanitary conditions.

Providing a hygienic means of removing human waste shouldn’t be such a challenge. The humble WC, as it is often called (even in countries where the derivation of these letters, ‘water closet’, is a mystery), has been around for 4,500 years. The Harappan civilisation in what is now modern Pakistan and north-west India had water-flushing toilets in each house linked with drains in 2500 BC. About a thousand years later, toilets appeared in Minoan Crete and could later be found in ancient Egypt, Persia, China and Rome.

Such trifles came to Britain rather later. During the Middle Ages, in cities like Edinburgh, the contents of chamberpots were simply thrown out the window, (hopefully) with the warning for passers-by ‘Gardyloo!’, a bastardisation of the French ‘Guardez l’eau‘. The development of a modern sewage system in London in the nineteenth century was a major leap forward for the city’s residents, even if we are still struggling with much the same Victorian infrastructure today.

Strangely, the lavvy has seen little further development beyond the basic choice of sit or squat. Your motions may be conducted in a primitive shack or on a gold-plated pedestal, but the basic design options have remained pretty much the same for a long time. A big hand for the Japanese, then, whose obsession with hygiene and gadgets has come together to produce toilets with control panels that would not be out of place on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. I can report, from personal experience in Tokyo, that pressing the button for warm water on such a device produces a stream of liquid which is initially alarming to the untrained Western anus but is ultimately quite satisfying and surprisingly accurate. Every home should have one.

The toilet can also be a haven for contemplation and literary edification. A supply of reading material is essential; indeed, in the UK you can now buy various ‘Toilet Books’ that are packed with interesting facts and trivia that you peruse while passing time and solid matter. For the British working man, a trip to the ‘bog’ with a copy of the Sun is as important a part of the daily routine as a shave and a shower.

The toilet’s disconnection from everyday life, combined with the relaxing motion of the bowels, is also conducive to creativity. I recall Andy Partridge, singer-songwriter with Eighties indie-popsters XTC, making this very point in a documentary about his band. He may never have had a Number One, but Partridge claimed to be inspired to write a batch of hit songs while having a Number Two. A place of quiet solitude for men, the lavatory can be the modern equivalent of the Roman Forum for women on a night out. In women’s toilets in pubs and clubs, gossip is exchanged and slanging matches conducted while their peers queue patiently outside.

In the developed world, the toilet has become a centrepiece of our lives: it provides a civilised and hygienic way to deal with everyday human waste, and it provides a quiet zone in which one can think, relax, read. What might be a mere repository for our bodily wastes is actually a barometer of material development, a haven for introspection and a social leveller. After all, even kings need to use the loo: in various European cultures, the toilet has been referred to as ‘the place where even the King goes alone’.

If the development of the toilet over thousands of years – from those rudimentary instruments used by the Harappan civilisation to the super-toilets used by the Japanese today – was a civilising moment for mankind, then today’s discussion of the toilet as an environmental polluter reveals much about a new Western mindset that sees civilisation itself as problematic. Today, Western leaders tell us we should flush our toilets sparingly in order to ‘save water’ (London mayor Ken Livingstone advises Londoners to flush excrement but leave urine in the bowl), while supposedly radical eco-activists, such as those who gathered at the Climate Camp in Heathrow over the summer, prefer to use compost toilets rather than flushable machines.

The toilet has helped to make life for half of humanity more pleasant and dignifed. Perhaps those Westerners who think the toilet is a problem would like to swap places with the other half of humanity – those 2.6billion people who have little choice but to defacate in the open.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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