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World Toilet Day – shitting on Third World development

Russell McCarthy

Topics Science & Tech

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It’s that magical time of year, a time to get together with those closest to us and think about the things that really matter: that’s right, it’s World Toilet Day. WTD aims to raise awareness of the billions of people around the world who are still without access to proper sanitation. A noble cause, one might think, when you consider the fact that a third of the world’s population lack toilet facilities and running water. However, just scratch the surface and the campaign is rooted in maintaining low horizons for the poor.

I asked Ceri Dingle, director of the 2008 documentary Flush It, what she thought of the campaign: ‘I wouldn’t mind World Toilet Day so much if they actually wanted everyone to have a flushing toilet; but they don’t. They’re obsessed with myths about the water cycle, and the idea we must limit the amount of water we can use, and they let this dictate everything they do.’

Dingle is right, the website for WTD is adorned with pictures of the most rudimentary communal showers, water pumps and outhouses. Far from being ashamed of showcasing such ramshackle constructions, the campaigners boast about their sustainability. According to WTD, these pitiful provisions are the kind of facilities our peers in the Third World should aspire to.

Similarly, NGOs such as WaterAid and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) – both prominent supporters of the campaign – argue that the solution to the lack of toilets in the Third World is the Ventilation Improved Pit Toilet (better known by its misleading acronym, VIP Toilet). The VIP Toilet is effectively an outhouse with a squatting hole which needs to be manually ‘excavated’ every year or two. It has now been improved with the addition of a ventilation pipe which is said to lessen the foul stench and reduce the number of flies. Dingle doesn’t think much of such innovations: ‘I remember seeing automatic toilets in Japan almost 20 years ago, with jets of water and hot air, a cushioned seat, adjustable height – all operated from a computer-control panel. That was a VIP toilet, not some hole in the ground with a pipe sticking out of it.’

What’s sorely lacking from this campaign is any recognition that people in the Third World want – and need – the same level of sanitation and convenience that we enjoy in the West. If we are serious about sanitation we must aspire to an abundance of water that would allow every home on earth to have flushing toilets, drinking water on tap, hot showers and washing machines. This will never be achieved through thinking small: we need dams, desalination plants, and extensive pipelines to carry water hundreds of miles. What the world doesn’t need is another stinking hole in the ground to shit in.

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Topics Science & Tech

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