Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Prince of Orange tosses an orange toilet, then takes the opportunity to talk about the toilet-less

April 30th: Prince Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange and heir to the throne of the Netherlands, won a village’s orange toilet bowl tossing contest that was held in honor of Queen’s Day.

Apparently, tossing toilet bowls is a common village game for celebrations, meant for “just a laugh.” But more recently, the Prince was quoted as saying, "I participated with a smile, but not without shame in thinking about the some 2.6 billion people around the world that do not have this most basic infrastructure to fulfill a daily need with dignity." He said that the only reason that he participated was because the toilets were to be used for a project in Gambia. (Although who wants orange toilets?)

The competition organizer, Jakob Buitenhuis, called the prince’s attitude “childish.”

The headlines on this in both of the sources I found the story (BBC and The Telegraph) sadly, though emphasized that he was “ashamed” of participating more than the why—the idea that sanitation is such a huge problem in the world. I applaud his attempt to highlight the issue, but the news outlets seem to have chosen instead to bury it.

Prince Willem-Alexander is one of the few celebrities who’ve publicly advocated for better sanitation, including writing this for the Gates Foundation and writing the introduction to this book. The only other celebrity I’ve seen publicly advocate for better sanitation (not water, which has enough celebrity spokespeople) is Shah Rukh Kahn, Bollywood superstar.

The prince won a cup with a little toilet on top with a string that you can pull to flush it. (Anyone else want one of those?)

My big question though—this story came out yesterday. Why on earth is this happening a month after the actual toilet toss?

London toilet

Just got a pic of a public toilet in London. It looks rather elegant and tidy, doesn't it? It's also unambiguously a toilet. You don't need to hide toilets from public view for aesthetic reasons if you do it right.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

When shit is a good thing: Kenya

When is shit a good thing?

People tend to talk about shit as if it is universally acknowledged to be disgusting and repulsive. We don't like talking about it and assume that nobody else does either. For western cultures, shit is waste, disease-causing and filthy.

But can we look at it another way?
In the ethnography Bewitching Development: Witchcraft and the Reinvention of Development in Neoliberal Kenya (which I also discussed here) James Howard Smith writes:

"But when properly controlled, shit was positive: abundant feces indicated health and prosperity--a regular flow of value into and out of the body. Appropriately contained feces symbolized productive social order…When senior men drank together, they sprayed beer out of their mouths, intoning what they understood to be an ironic and amusing blessing: 'May your house overflow with shit!'….Furthermore, when Taita males declared the virtues of hard work and deference, they said that ‘he who is loyal to an elder shits a big stool’” (emphases mine; 2008: 97)

In other words, shit that is abundant and controlled (that is bounded and contained) is, in fact, positive.

It makes sense; you only shit when you can eat, and in places where getting adequate food is not taken for granted, such a correlation is more readily understood. Controlled shit is controlling the body and being a part of society. Having enough food to produce lots of shit is a sign of prosperity and health. In 17th century Germany you can see this as well, as houses would pile manure in their front yards in order to demonstrate their personal wealth.

Shit also equals flow. What goes in must also come out, indicating a connectedness and a natural cycle. (In times and places where shit is used as fertilizer, this becomes a closed cycle, as waste from food is used to produce more food.) Positive flows have long been a part of many different medical understandings of the body.

Note also the equating of loyalty with a large output of shit. A valued personal attribute (loyalty) leads to greater prosperity, as symbolized by shit.

Compare this with the US’s attitudes. Shit that is controlled is a neutral value; it is what it is supposed to be, and thus is ignored. It is only when it is no longer controlled that it acquires a value, but a negative one. Is it any wonder that politicians very rarely campaign on things like fixing sanitation structures? They would far rather correlate their campaigns with positive values. This attitude carries over into NGO work, where donors and workers will often only view the management of human waste as a neutral value; but neutral values bring little glory or donor dollars.

But as the above passage might indicate, if NGO workers adapt the attitude that shit can be a positive thing, then this might go a long way in helping reorient sanitation work values in a more productive way.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Beijing sets a two-fly limit for their public toilets

BBC just posted an article and video about Beijing's new ordinances for their public toilets, which includes a stipulation that a public restroom can have no more than two flies in it. Other rules denote that no more than two "discarded items" may be present for longer than a half hour.

Beijing's restrooms are "notorious" for being unclean, and in many neighborhoods, public toilets are the only options of the residents. The laws, though, are aimed at high-traffic and tourist locations such as railway stations, parks, hospitals, and malls. They endeavor to "standardize" the cleanliness of restrooms.

Apparently, this isn't Beijing's first attempt at cleaning up the public restrooms: a 2008 ordinance for the Olympics did not successfully result in a significant change across the board.

China Daily reports that the rules are not meant to be compulsory. The rules also request that restrooms be well-equipped to accommodate the elderly and the disabled.

Public restrooms are not recognized by the UN's Millennium Development Goals as being
"improved" sanitation--thus, public restrooms often don't "count" when it comes to assessing a country's progress towards improving the quality of life of its residents. This is more important, granted, for more "developing" countries in the world who are seeking out international aid and loans, but, internationally, there is very little discussion about public restrooms overall.

Beijing's ordinances are unique in that they address the human experiential aspect of sanitation as opposed to solely focusing on the excreta disposal. The latter is more traditionally and widely accepted as being the purview of the government, whereas the former is often thought of as merely a "nicety." Poor public restroom quality differentially affects women and the elderly, marginalizing already marginalized populations.

This story, I would like to note, is again from an Asian country. Some Asian countries seem, overall, more comfortable talking about toilets and restrooms. Anyone more familiar with Japan or China who can throw in why they seem far more comfortable talking about sanitation than Europe or the US?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Great Stink vs. Great Rebellion

WaterAid keeps posting little YouTube videos all the time:

When the video begins, a dapper-looking gentleman in a top hat hacks into his handkerchief. Next to him, a grungy rat scampers along the railing. Flies buzz while morose piano music plays in the background. “London, 1858,” the narrator begins. “Death and disease stalked the Thames.” The Grim Reaper rows across a tarry-looking Thames under an ashy sky. “Raw sewage was dumped straight into the river, which became a brown sludge. And the smell was terrible. The Great Stink forced Members of Parliament to act. Effective sanitation meant that disease was massively reduced, health was improved, and countless lives were saved.” The sky clears, the Thames becomes a translucent blue, and a flock of birds flies in front of a charmingly sparkling Parliament building. Now we see similarly rosy pictures of Tokyo and Paris as the narrator tells us that they went through their own clean-ups.
Then, we see a picture of a slum—leaning shanties with tattered cloth doors, open sewers of scum, a child balanced on a precarious bridge on his way to a ramshackle latrine. Vaguely tribal music begins. The sound of flies returns. “Yes, 150 years since the Great Stink, in the developing world, billions of people are living and dying in the kind of squalor that was eradicated long ago in the rich world. 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation, and over 1 billion lack access to clean water.” There is a crisis in sanitation, he says, that threatens to undermine all development efforts. “The stink goes on!”
WaterAid’s video takes a high-handed stance on sanitation: Europe figured out sanitation management over 150 years ago, the video claims; the developing world is “behind” and continues to live in its own stench. If you donate to WaterAid, you can help the developing world “catch up” and achieve the sanitation nirvana experienced by the developed world.
This is the video that launched one of my term papers which ended up being a 46-page behemoth (if you want a copy, feel free to ask). I try to ask: well, why didn’t other major cities develop a sanitation system at the same time? To focus, I looked at Delhi, one of the major cities of Britain’s colony at the time, India.
So what was going on in India?

In 1857, the British, in the form of the East India Trading Company, had been in India for over 200 years. Relations between the Indians and the British were strained to the limit. All that was needed was a single spark to ignite the country. The spark came.
In the spring of 1857, a rumor spread amongst the Indian soldiers near Delhi that the ammunition casings for the new rifles they were using had both pork and beef fat in them, meaning that using them was a blasphemy in both Hinduism and Islam. A group of soldiers refused to use the guns; they were punished; their friends rebelled; and this started a rebellion that swept across the entire country. The British struggled to regain control over their economic resource, and the Indians struggled to regain control over their lives and their country.
British political cartoon, 1857 (source)

Thousands of Britons and Indians died—men, women, and children. But the biggest killer of Britons in the Rebellion? Cholera, which, only two years before, was discovered to be from human waste travelling in water, but even earlier, was already associated with the subcontinent. The Rebellion was fragmented and disorganized, and eventually, the British reconquered the territory and kept a greater hold on it than before. Delhi was razed almost to the ground in order to assert the power of the British over what was historically the Mughal capitol.
Jantar Mantar, 1857 (source)

 The city went through a massive period of rebuilding at almost the exact time that London was afflicted by the Great Stink of the video, but while London got one of the most impressive sewage systems ever built, Delhi made do with a hodge podge of manual labor, open drains, tanks, and haphazard river dumping.
So there were periods of urban reconstruction in both cities. There was an opportunity to rebuild Delhi with sanitation. So why not? This is going to be me trying to summarize 40 pages into a few bullet points, but here goes:

·        The British thought they could “seal” the Indians and protect themselves by segregating them into a different part of the city. Even their sanitation systems were kept separate sometimes. If they could protect themselves from the Indians and their body products, they could keep themselves safer. The British could, effectively, isolate themselves making Indian sanitation “not their problem.” (This is exactly what happens today around the world, by the way.)
·        The British believed that Indians wouldn’t “like” water closets; that it would be too strange and new to them. There was a strong belief that Indians were backwards, primitive, and dirty, and British policies that prevented Indians from building latrines (for example, the public nuisance laws of 1862) or institutionalized the use of manual scavengers as the main means of waste disposal in an area helped to perpetuate that.
·        Using manual labor was cheaper, and the British were never ones to invest in any projects that did not protect their interests. The British sewer system, which took 17 years to complete, cost 6.5 million pounds.
·        Because the British believed that they, and all things they created, were better than the Indians, they believed that water sewage systems (like we have today) were the best option. However, Delhi is, more or less, in a desert. Water is not a good option, and because of the way the way that everyone has bought into the superiority of western/waterborne technologies, alternatives were never really given a chance to flourish.
·        The knowledge that human fecal matter spreads disease was still not popular yet. (It wouldn’t be widely accepted by the scientific community until Robert Koch isolated the cholera bacteria in 1883.) Most people still thought that odors spread disease. If you can’t smell the problem, it’s not a problem.
·        There is a simple matter of who has power to change things and who was affected. In London, Parliament was right next to the Thames. During the Great Stink, they literally couldn’t work because of the stench. During the Great Rebellion? The people who had the power to authorize construction of sanitation were far away from the problem—on a different continent, sometimes.
 There are other reasons and subtleties, but these are some of the main themes.
So what's my main point? That it is unfair to make it sound like developing countries are stuck in the 19th century, that they “failed” to develop like the US and Europe did. In many cases, their lack of sanitation is a direct consquence of colonial influence. (India, historically, has had sewage systems in many of their cities: the site of Mohenjo-Daro boasts the first waste water system known, and Mughal Delhi had a relatively sophisticated set of drains.) Instead of thinking of issues like sanitation as if nations were somehow isolated unto themselves, we need to shift our thinking: they do not have a problem, we—as citizens of the world system—have a sanitation problem that we are historically and collectively responsible to fix.

Let’s shift our thinking—and our rhetoric—accordingly.   

For more information and some of the sources, check out Mann’s article and Vijay Prashad’s. For a full bibliography, please e-mail me; it contains 40+ sources that I don’t have time to add here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sanitation in news

Korea's toilet and bidet revolution: How Korea got on board with the non-paper wiping culture

World's largest public toilet opens in Japan: It's actually a really nice design. Public toilets as art. Have you noticed that Asian countries seem far more inclined to spend more time on their sanitation than anybody else. Good for them.

Sulabh Toilet International, an Indian organization that builds public toilets in urban areas and educates manual scavengers, is being written about again, this time in a Tanzanian newspaper. (Hopefully a precursor to spreading their model to Africa?)

Jack Sim, founder of World Toilet International, gives business advice to Israeli students.

Two men in Oregon were fired after complaining to the government that their boss did not provide an on-site toilet and were forced to use a bucket.

Activists in Mumbai are fighting for the right of women to use public toilets without pay. Men don't have to pay; women do. They're calling it the "Right to Pee."

BBC columnist asks whether the toilet problem in India is a "cultural problem." (Disclaimer: I don't like this article at all.)

Scientists have done research and found that a drug formerly used to treat arthritis can be used to treat dysentery.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Colonial attitudes keep coming back...with a new hat

Look! Disembodied African hands! This must be a good paper on water! (Source)

The Copenhagen Consensus, an environmental think tank, just released the 2012 Water and Sanitation Challenge Paper, a paper on sanitation and water solutions commissioned from Frank Rijsberman, director of water, sanitation, and hygiene for the Gates Foundation, and Alix Peterson Zwane, a senior program officer. The Copenhagen Consensus’s tagline is “solving the world’s challenges,” and they say they are one of the “best environmental think tanks in the world.” Since the 2008 document focused on water, the authors decided to focus on sanitation this time. I was excited, by weary.

The paper starts out with this: we’ve already met the Millennium Development Goal on water, to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe water, but we’re going to completely miss the goal of halving the proportion of the population without basic sanitation. Some 2.5 billion people don’t have access to basic sanitation—this, incidentally, is a number that’s been quoted a lot, but I haven’t entirely figured out where it came from or how it came to be. But I’m certainly the last person to contest how important sanitation is. Slate did a good summary of the paper too, that you might want to check out if you don’t want to go through the whole thing.

But while the paper made a few good points (the economic importance of sanitation, the need to “reinvent” the toilet, the need to make sanitation an “aspirational” product), it replicated a lot of the problematic wording that’s pretty common in public health discussions. See if you can spot my problem:

 “There is also suggestive evidence that improving sanitation presents a coordination failure and that behavioral biases prevent optimal take-up, which also bolsters the case for subsidies.”

Behavioral biases? Let’s blame the people and their “behavior.” Not the systems, or bad technology, or latrines that require you to haul water to flush it, or really disgusting-looking toilets that people don’t want to use. Oddly enough, such language sounds a lot like some of the British discourses. Quote from the paper I just wrote on 19th sanitation in Delhi:

When systems failed, technology was not blamed: it was the lack of funds (citation), it was the ‘backwardness’ of the natives, it was the ‘recalcitrance of social ideas’ (citation) and the fault of bickering politicians who got in the way of the march of ‘technology’… And yet, technology cannot be divorced from the context from which it is born nor the context into which it is meant to be installed: ‘it is not sufficient to blame economists or politicians, for science, too, has partly failed its best intentions’ (citation).

             Politicians? Money? Technology? “Backwardness of the natives” (updated to be “behavior biases”)? All of these are themes brought up in the Challenge paper: countries aren’t investing enough, politicians aren’t agreeing. While in this excerpt, technology was seen as high and mighty, there is in the Challenge paper an acknowledgement that we need to “reinvent the toilet”, to create one that will be an “aspirational item”: the “smartphone of toilets.” But this technology is within reach, the paper claims, which means that, like with the British in India in the 19th century, the blame is primarily on people, money, and politics.

            This “blame the people” assumption is implicit in the first intervention the paper advocates, that of Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), an approach that is becoming pretty widespread, being funded and used by WaterAid, UNICEF, Plan, Gates, and a whole bunch of others. The idea is that a facilitator goes into a village and “triggers” disgust at their open defecation practices through a variety of methods, like calculating how much feces gets deposited each day, mapping where it goes, putting human feces found in a field next to some food and daring people to eat it, putting some hair in some feces then in water and daring people to drink it, giving children whistles to blow at people they catch openly defecating, and many more. Then, after everyone realizes how disgusting they are, they pressure each other into building toilets. (I’ll write more on this later, since it’s one of my favorite topics to rant about.)

It’s not that they’re poor or the government has failed to provide basic systems. The natives just have bad hygiene, right? They’re just dirty or ignorant and don’t realize how disgusting they are. Vijay Prashad writes (talking about British attitudes in Delhi), “From the standpoint of the colonial officials from the 1860s, it was easier to bemoan the native’s putative lack of hygiene than to produce systems of sanitation to remedy the lack of amenities” (citation). Incidentally, one of the most important parts of CLTS, as originally conceived by its founder? Don’t give people subsidies. It’s their responsibility to build latrines, they just need to have their backwards ideas fixed.

Remember the old trope about repeating history? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stop cycling back? Development is never going to lose its colonialism-in-a-new-hat attitudes if we don’t examine more closely the words we use and the assumptions behind them.

What are your thoughts? Are there other ways we can talk about “behavioral change” without setting up the same old hierarchy? Where should sanitation programs be targeted?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Speed toilets!

Sorry, still trying to finish my papers. Another micro-post.

Yesterday, in Australia, Canadian stuntwoman Jolene Van Vugt set the world record for motorized toilet speed by riding 46 mph on the little cart.

Why? I have no idea whatsoever. Because they can?

This still isn't nearly as cool as Toto's toilet motorcycle from last year, which not only looks more awesome, but actually runs on biogas. It can play music, write messages in the air using "residual light imagery" (I'm not cetain what that means, really), and talk. It was built to help promote biogas and Toto's green initiatives.