World Toilet Day 19th November

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Let’s Talk About Poo….

What comes to your mind when you hear the word poo? It seems more of a posh word. How about we call it what it really is – excrement, faeces, excreta or to be very frank…shit!

I love my toilet or, any other name you would prefer to call it – loo, lavatory, restroom, ladies, gents or whatever….it sure does have a lot of names. So, be it at home, at work, at the shopping mall or anywhere else I find myself in desperate need of the natural process of off-loading the waste in my human system, a decent place is very welcomed. The dignity and convenience of using a clean toilet is always a delight for me, as I struggle anytime I am faced with a dirty toilet. It is just such an unpleasant experience for my system and quite repulsive. Why is that? Could it be as a result of my upbringing, education, culture, exposure, or simply a deep rooted human instinct? My grandmother in the village has no formal western education and is not exactly exposed, but she had a clean ventilated pit latrine which I clearly remember using while visiting as a child, until she was upgraded to the water closet system. Consequently, whether it is an expensive flush system or a simple pit latrine, it makes no difference toilet wise, as long as it is well maintained. Though, I must confess, that given a choice, the electric toilet is just it!

Basic sanitation involves safe disposal of faeces so that it does not contaminate the environment, water, food or hands and is of utmost importance to our health. Yet, today there are over 2.5 billion people in the world (2 out of every 5) that do not have a safe and decent place to go to toilet. Water and sanitation related diseases kill about 2,000 children daily, more than HIV and malaria combined. Girls are forced to drop out of school when they reach puberty and start their menstrual cycle. Sadly, the Millennium Development Goal target on sanitation was one of those that was not met and is still far from being achieved. Even some animals seem to know sanitation is fundamental – cats for example would not use their soiled litter box or tray if it has not been emptied, cleaned and replaced. They would rather find an alternative place to do their business.

Then, why is there such a huge problem with sanitation? It seems that sometimes it is not because of economic reasons but, a complete misplacement of priority. There are millions more with mobile phones compared to those with access to a decent toilet in developing countries. Urban slums especially have completely fallen foul of this. Open defaecation seems to be entrenched as the accepted norm. How do we get out of this predicament? Is it through regulation, policy, governance, advocacy, influence? Or is it simply value reorientation and behavioural change? There is no doubt that a sustainable and integrated intervention is urgently needed through political will. Governments need to start making provision for sanitation in both urban and rural areas through some form of shared or fully funded schemes. NGOs are meant to complement the work of governments and they have done a lot but, more is needed.

Value reorientation cannot be over emphasised in this case. For over six years, I have enjoyed my volunteering work with #WaterAid as a Speaker and Workshop Facilitator. This role involves going into schools and organisations, usually on invitation, to talk about the excellent work that #WaterAid is doing and solicit for support. My best moment is usually when I show films to school children on some of the horrible sanitation situations in the most affected areas of the 37 countries WaterAid works in. You can clearly see the utter disgust written over their innocent faces – and this makes me almost certain that they would be organising some wonderful fundraising ideas for the organisation, which they usually do with such admirable dedication. Children in developed and developing countries have one thing in common, they are by nature easily influenced and, can be the ultimate agents of change desperately needed to make a difference. I strongly believe sanitation and hygiene education should be signed into law as a compulsory school curriculum by the United Nations.

My take on this is, unless there is a radical change in governance and attitude, the sustainable development goal on sanitation will still be a failure, which would be a real shame. But, I have hope that change is on the way!

Photographer credit: WaterAid/Suzanne Porter


Re: Water Security for All in a World of Scarcity (World Bank Spring Meetings 2015)

Water Security is a problem that is at the heart of The World Bank’s two very important goals: ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity. It is therefore timely to bring together all the global knowledge to solve the water agenda. Water is more than people versus profit versus planet; it is life, and the most important, precious resource available to mankind. But how do you get people to value water? It is interesting how scarcity forces the question to be answered. In moving forward, there must be a fundamental rethink about ways to safeguard and guarantee water for future generations. Very useful measures have to be taken to tackle dryness and properly address water scarcity before it becomes a crisis situation.

Wastewater reuse by industries and utilities should be encouraged, like the example of Windhoek, Namibia, where wastewater is reused for water supply. There may be some social resistance, but then, you can never underestimate the power of persuasion as has been shown in this case. Wastewater can be reused for irrigation, gardening and sports fields. Greywater can be reused for activities that do not require high quality water, like flushing toilets and watering lawns, while conserving freshwater. Treated wastewater should be discharged for groundwater recharge by industries and utilities. In regions where polluted rivers cannot be used for ground water recharge, tackling sanitation and regulation for industries disposing wastewater into rivers should be uppermost in reducing pollution, while allowing the rivers to regenerate over time.

Groundwater over abstraction has to be dealt with through proper governance, and ensuring high levels of groundwater recharge. Utilities need to be very efficient, and implementation of regulation uppermost, notwithstanding resistance from big time water consumers. Irrigation for food production is the greatest source of water consumption at about 80%, so the trade-off must be managed. There should also be more research into micro-irrigation schemes to improve yield with minimal use of water.

Behavioural change to use less water should be addressed in schools, furthermore, engaging the media to play a vital role in projecting water saving measures. For example in Southern Nevada, 93% of wastewater is recycled, and aggressive conservation campaign succeeded in reducing the amount of water used by a third, despite an increase in population of 400,000. Improved pricing should also be introduced with penalised billing for overuse. Concessions can be made to cater for the economically disadvantaged in society by introducing a minimum charge, as they are usually willing to pay a token for reliable service delivery, and this would prevent abuse of water. Political influence has to be properly managed through better water governance that responds to public interest.

A coherent and structured approach to water management is needed. Institutionalisation along with governance systems, policy development, regulation and implementation has to be addressed. Utilities have to do more to tackle the issue of unaccounted for water resulting from waste and leakages. It is highly irresponsible practise to have values as high as 50% loss reported. I remember an instructor at Osaka Municipal Water asking someone, “How would you feel if 50% of your take home pay is lost?” That is the enormity that most utilities have failed to come to terms with.

Technology should be harnessed in the most useful way and overall service delivery has to be very efficient. What would work in a particular region depends on the specifics of geography, water sources, industrialisation, level of urbanisation etc. Regions along the coastline could explore the option of desalination technology which is widely used in Australia, Spain and Israel. With the carbon footprint from energy intensive desalination plants, one might wonder if this should be an option. Perhaps the use of renewable energy for desalination should be spearheaded for a more acceptable carbon footprint.

Overall, a conscious effort is needed to reduce demand for freshwater, improve service delivery, and address water scarcity through political will and public awareness. The entire water life cycle, which is the whole cradle to grave approach, should also be considered. You can watch The World Bank Spring Meetings 2015 on water security