Saturday, November 03, 2007

World Toilet Summit 2007

Not too many on this side of the development divide will have noticed that a World Toilet Summit was held in Delhi this week.

More than 170 experts from over 40 countries gathered to square up with the fact that almost half of the world's population does not have access to a hygienic toilet (2.6 billion is the estimate).

The Summit lists the challenges as follows:
Lack of appropriate and affordable technologies suiting the requirements of the impoverished and underserved populations in developing countries.

Persistence of defecation in the open in continuation of the age-old practice, and utter disregard for improved hygiene practices, particularly in rural areas.

Sanitation and hygiene issues not receiving adequate priority and prominence in sustainable development programmes, at policy level in developing countries.

Insufficient emphasis on community mobilisation, hygiene education and involvement of women in sanitation programmes in rural areas, urban slums and public places.

Resource crunch for meeting requirements and absence of suitable delivery mechanisms for implementing sanitation programmes.

The situation is particularly dire in India where it is said that "more than 700 million people have no access to toilets which have proper waste disposal systems."

An NGO called Sulabh International is working hard to get low-cost hygienic toilets into communities in India. They also have a museum of toilets in Delhi which for some reason I did not go see.

Mr. Bindeshwar Pathak who is the founder and director of Sulabh International co-sponsored the Summit. He told delegates that:"To achieve the goals, what is essential is that technology needs to be urgently developed that is suitable and simple of implementation. Sewers or septic tanks are not the solutions."

Mr. Pathak (pictured) models his toilet advocacy on the example of Mahatma Gandhi who built basic and environmentally sound toilets in the 1970s.

Sulabh International is reported to have "developed a low-cost system that turns waste into water, fertiliser for crops and biogas to run generators."

I remember as I made my way through India it was often difficult to come to terms with public urination and the human waste that littered walkways and other areas where people worked and lived.

On occasion I dismissed the behaviour in terms that were unfair, insensitive, and oh so arrogant.

I expect that most of us who are fortunate to live where sanitation systems are a given would hardly understand the challenges that India faces in providing hygienic toilets.

How many of us even give a second thought to the restrooms we frequent anywhere in the developed West?

What is disturbing though is that almost half of the world is forced to live in unsanitary conditions where waste causes disease and early death.

In India, only 15% of all rural people have access to a toilet. And keep in mind that 70% of India's 1.2 billion people live in rural areas.

The added problem of providing clean water in these conditions makes the situation even worse. Most of India's rivers are so polluted that it will take many years to correct the ecological imbalance.

Mr. Pathak points out that "Doctors around the world now say that better sanitation and public hygiene are key for improving public health." No doubt.

I expect that more than a few may chuckle at the content of this post and the picture of Mr. Pathak sitting on a toilet above.

But think this through carefully; for one out of every two people anywhere, access to a toilet is an absolute privilege that is no closer to reality now than it was decades ago.

The United Nations (UN) is very optimistic when it says that the situation must be fixed by 2025. Toward meeting this goal it has named 2008 as the "UN Year of Sanitation".

We live in a troubled world and the intention here is not to degrade the poor masses that suffer under these conditions. Blaming the victim would amount to nothing less than arrogant and inhumane nonsense.

What we need is a consensus among nation-states that half of the world matters enough for us to provide clean toilets and sanitation systems, and clean water.

For those who think this is not their business it would be wise to measure the environmental devastation that has been caused already.

We can't afford too much more of the same.


Dione said...

This is a good time for many of us to remember how fortunate we are. Western Society- there is much privilege that the vast majority take for granted. Even our inner city homeless can use a public restroom if they need to, and there is running water.
I think we all need to appreciate the struggle of others, and that maybe sometimes our own personal trials/trivializations are just that- insignificant to the big picture. Thanks for the reality check!


Shus li che dut nah (Spring Thunder) said...

ah, s**t, here in p-town our sewage just goes into our superfund site the willamette river (when we have heavy rains, which is frequently).

some friends of mine living in a sustainable groovy eco-village use composting toilets, which is what is assume mr pathak is endorsing

thanks for, uh, food for thought, ridwan

Ridwan said...

Dione thanks for your comment. Yes we need to check ourselves. I also hope that we would be motivated to work for change in any way.


Ridwan said...

Shusli I remember when the Willamette would overflow and
e-coli alerts were broadcast.

Or when the authorities tell people not to eat fish from the Willamette.

In Mexico (Punta Mita) I saw a sewerage pipe pump raw sewer water into the ocean just feet from where families were relaxing.

The scene made me think back to the manner that beaches were segregated in South Africa.

Specifically how the apartheid government would pump raw sewerage into the beaches where "non-whites" were allowed.

I also read that the beaches in the Keys are mostly unsafe since they register 90 percent e-coli rates.

Best wishes to ya!


Dione said...

oh thats horrible!!!!
I worry about our oceans and water everywhere!