Monday, July 30, 2012

Sewage in the basement--Atlanta has problems, too

Atlanta, where I currently live, is a tropical place--in the summer, the lightning and thunder storms drench the city.

And yet, someone a very long time ago decided that sewage water and the storm overflow should flow into the same system. Result? The systems are being overwhelmed, and residential basements are being flooded with raw sewage.

For one couple interviewed, this is the third time in three years that this has happened. The city keeps saying that they'll do something, but people are (understandably) frustrated when no concrete time table is presented. Residents have talked to various government agencies and gotten no where. Unfortunately, there is no quick solution--the problem goes down to the engineering of the problem.

Atlanta's infrastructure has been a previous topic for a post. Aging infrastructure in Atlanta has resulted in millions of dollars in EPA fines, polluted surface water sources, and poor water quality in homes. To fix sewage is a huge investment, requiring a great deal of political clout. Even London in the 19th century couldn't get together the political will to fix the problem until Parliament was affected by the horrific stench. What is it going to take this time for aging cities to address major infrastructure problems? Shit in the basements of politicians?

In the meantime, the rain storms continue and there is no real solution in sight.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Toilet: An Unspoken History

BBC 4 recently aired a documentary called "Toilet: An Unspoken History," hosted by the Welsh poet Ifor ap Glyn. (If you have problems watching it on the BBC website, it's on YouTube as well.)

The documentary begins with our affable host reminiscing on the toilet he used when he was at his uncle and aunt's in rural Wales, a composting toilet where you add ash to help the composting process. From there, he takes us to some of the oldest and most sophisticated toilets in ancient Rome. The documentary takes the viewers around the world and through time, first tracing the history and then projecting a possible future. We're taken to Japan, to view the super-toilets; to the World Toilet Summit; to the Golden Poo stand-up comedy show, where toilet humor is used to publicize the sanitation crisis; to Bangladesh, to look at issues of both rural and urban sanitation; to a university in Holland, where researchers are trying to taking up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenge to "reinvent the toilet"; and other destinations. It's an informative documentary--I learned a lot that I did not know, such as the fact that princesses in ancient Japan would have their servants pour water in front of the toilet in order to mask the sound of them defecating. (Modern Japanese toilets often include a button that generates sound to accomplish the same thing.)

But in particular, I was impressed and pleased about the tone that the documentary struck. It was sensitive, professional, unabashed, and yet was gently humorous at appropriate times, more towards our own discomfort with the topic than the topic itself. It did not rely on grossing people out. When the host visited people in Bangladesh, he did not dwell on the disgustingness of their sanitation situation: he observed it calmly and pointed out the health effects. He noted that one of the reasons that people did not have sanitation is that the residents of the slums were, officially, squatters, and thus did not want to invest in infrastructure when they could be kicked out any day. The photography did not show people in compromising positions (unlike some I've seen) and treated them with dignity while not diminishing the problem.

What I saw as possible problems with the documentary can primarily be attributed to time constraints (it's only an hour): details that could have been elucidated, a lack of discussion of problems with particular approaches mentioned, and missing pieces of narrative. Overall, however, I think it is a fantastic documentary and I would heartily recommend it for both people who've been studying this for a while and for people new to the topic.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The man on the toilet: is it ok to use humor to promote awareness?

“I’m not leaving this toilet until we raise $50,000,” said Simon Griffiths from what appears to be some sort of warehouse on July 10th. Two days, two hours, and sixteen minutes later, Griffiths unsticks himself from the loo after having raised the $50,000. Why did he do this? I’ll let him explain:

 If you weren’t able to watch the video, a team is trying to start up a toilet paper business that will donate 50% of their profits to building toilets in developing countries via WaterAid. The website of Who Gives a Crap is now attempting to raise $100,000.

I’m not going to get into WaterAid’s effectiveness as an organization right now (according to the Director of Global Safe Water group, water projects have a 55% failure rate; however, WaterAid is one of the organizations that has started to make moves to assess this). However, I do want to bring up the idea of spreading awareness of sanitation problems and how we do it. Is making toilet jokes appropriate? I read about this story on the Huffington Post website: would I have read about it had he not sat on a toilet, but a chair or a rock? Probably not so much. The strangeness and the humor of the situation makes it a far more successful awareness campaign than it would have been otherwise.

But by capitalizing on toilet humor, do we also not threaten to make humorous a really not-funny situation? Do we threaten the cause by associating sanitation problems with humor instead of a tragic situation that causes the deaths of 1.5 million children under the age of 5 every year? If this was another public health campaign—clean water, AIDS, malaria—anyone using humor to raise awareness would be lambasted for being insensitive. Yet humor is often seen as the only way to broach this uncomfortable, taboo topic. However, we do not view this about any other taboo topic—like AIDS, for example. Defecation—humorous. Sex—not. We reveal our own discomforts with our own body, the way that we have managed to segment it and place the various activities of our body on a kind of hierarchy.

I think the Who Gives a Crap people have a really cool idea. I especially applaud that the organization is choosing to donate their funds to an experienced organization instead of starting their own. I’m also really excited to see that they’ve managed to bring a lot of attention to the issue, and the speed with which they raised their funds gives me hope that more attention is going to be paid to this issue. Looking at how we bring attention to these topics reveals something about how we think about our bodies. The question is, can we expect those who are trying to raise money for worthy causes to try to change these perceptions? Do the ends justify the means?  

What are your thoughts?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Airplane toilets

I’ve returned from Ethiopia finally, and now I can update this more regularly—you know, for all my regular readers.

The flight back from Ethiopia was about 18 hours in the air—18 hours of being rather tightly packed with a hundred or so strangers. Naturally, when you have the window seat—between cups of water, ginger ale, and coffee—you become very concerned with getting to the restroom. This is especially awkward if to the right of you are two men who you’ve managed to avoid eye contact with, much less conversation, for the past 11 hours. It also gets tricky when both members fall asleep at different times, because you’re a considerate/shy person and don’t want to wake them up. (Side note: On a flight to Germany, the guy next to me took sleeping pills. Desperate to go to the bathroom, I ended up standing on the seat and leaping over him. When I got back, he was awake, and asked, “How did you get out?”) When you finally get to the bathroom, wait in line, you are granted entrance to a narrow space that is barely adequate for you, much less people with disabilities, large people, and people with children. We can pretty much all agree that airplane toilets are unpleasantly small, though, so I won’t linger too much on the subject.

But how do airplane toilets work? How Stuff Works has a great explanation. Basically, it’s an active vacuum system. Regular toilets, on the other hand, work only through gravity. According to the article, this has the marked advantage that the waste does not have to simply go down—it can go down, up, sideways, diagonal….you get the idea. It’s an interesting idea that might be an interesting element to consider for systems where down is not necessarily possible because of the ground.

The whoosh of the vacuum seal seems to either cause a strange glee or a fear of being sucked in. Mythbusters claims that you can pull yourself off, but in 2008, a Mr. Murphy flushed while sitting on the toilet, and managed to get himself stuck there until the end of the flight. Garrison Keillor’s article is rather pithily titled, “How an airplane toilet can ruin your life.” Probably a great deal of our anxieties circle around the fact that when we defecate, we are at our most vulnerable, and the whoosh of the toilet—being unfamiliar and strange—seems somewhat threatening. Furthermore, being on an airplane means that we have surrendered our control of the situation; having something unfamiliar in what is traditionally a “safe” space further threatens our sense of well-being.

Another concern on the internet seems to be the idea where airplanes dump their loads (no pun intended). There are a plethora of anecdotes about smelly stuff falling from the sky or “blue ice”—frozen blue toilet liquid agent that will leak from the system, freeze to the side of the airplane, and then occasionally break off. While the dark goop that a Long Island couple reported falling from an airplane seems less likely (actual sanitation leakages would reach the ground as blue ice), blue ice can actually cause real damage to airplanes, as this Slate article points out: in 1992, a bad lavatory seal caused the system to leak blue ice, which broke off and took out an engine. Mythbusters pointed out that dropping hard objects down the john can cause one of the seals to break, causing the system to leak. Airplane toilets can cause a lot of anxiety, in the sense that the waste is not really contained: it is, in fact, above us—literally. We generally prefer that our waste be underground.

What are your thoughts with airplane toilets?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The toilets in Jimma

In the city of Jimma, I have my toilet in the hotel. It’s a white, porcelain, throne-style water flush toilet that would be just like home—except hat it appears to leak water on my floor on a regular basis, it seems to be nearly constantly filling its tank, and the water goes out in the city pretty consistently.

The last is a reflection of the town’s poor infrastructure in general, where everything from roads to water is an unreliable mess. The other night I was picking my way through the mud puddles and bumps of the road and nearly fell into an 8-foot deep hole in the middle of the sidewalk, and I am consistently woken up on my trips back from the rural areas by nearly being catapulted out of my seat as we hit the first Jimma road.

            Jimma has particularly bad corruption, which has helped lead to the decay and unreliability of the infrastructure. Infrastructure is one of the most direct and personal ways in which we experience the power of—or the lack of power of—the government, or (as social science-y people use more often) the state. On a day to day basis (presuming you don’t work for the government or get pulled over a lot for speeding), the most consistent time we encounter government influences is through infrastructure. It’s in our homes—it’s the light we flip on in the morning, the shower we turn on, the toilet we flush.

            But sanitation infrastructure is unique. A difficulty at the electric plant affects you. You know when the power’s gone bad because you can’t use the full array of electronic doohickeys you have. You might call the power company and ask why it’s out. But what about when the sewage goes bad? It’s somebody else’s problem—it’s the state’s. Once you flush, your shit is no longer your property, no longer your responsibility. When you flush, the state infrastructure takes your shit out of your house and into the “public” space where you can pretend it never belonged to you. (Me? Shit? No….I’m a girl. I never shit.)

            Personally, I have no idea where my sewage goes when I flush it here in Jimma. I am grateful that it’s away, but I don’t take ownership of it, I don’t curse the state every time I flush the toilet like I curse the state when the electricity goes out while I’m in the middle of talking with my boyfriend online. (Conversely, I do curse when my toilet doesn't flush--meaning that my waste still is in my space instead of away.) I doubt there’s a wastewater treatment plant anywhere in the area, and I can be fairly certain that someone—near a river or stream that all of this is getting dumped into—is cursing.