Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Low-cost Toilets

Having enough clean toilets is a major problem that plagues most developing countries. Growing up I remember walking through slums in the Philippines and being taken aback by where people "did their business". To a much lesser extent, homeless people in the US face the similar problem of lack of public restrooms.

A recent article in the Economist puts a spotlight on the social and public health impact of the absence of latrines. Having to go out in the open is an embarrassing experience for most of us, but for poor people in developing countries, out in the open is their only option. Add the fact that socioeconomic class consciousness is much more pronounced in developing countries, one can understand why having to do so regularly becomes a traumatic experience (especially for women).
... Surprisingly, some of those who have to defecate in the open do not mind. Some rural men, and even women, quite enjoy a social squat in the bushes. But for many, and certainly for those who must live with its consequences, it is a disagreeable practice. Women and, especially, girls often find it embarrassing. Many women in South Asia contain themselves by day and wait till nightfall before venturing into the shadows. Girls at African schools without latrines often drop out rather than risk the jeers of their male contemporaries. Slum-dwellers in Nairobi have to pick their way through streams of sewage and take care to avoid “flying toilets”, plastic bags filled with excrement that are flung with desperate abandon into the night.

Without piped water to wash their hands with, let alone to drink, the open-air defecators and another 800m people with access only to primitive latrines are inevitably carriers of disease. If they could wash their hands with soap and water, they could block one of the main transmission routes for the spread of both diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections. As it is, patients with water-related diseases fill half the hospital beds in the poorest countries, and dirty water and poor sanitation kill 5,000 children a day.
The article mentions two low-cost alternatives a non-profit dedicated to improving toilet and sanitation conditions worldwide, and Peepoo -- a single-use, personal, and biodegradable toilet alternative.
... Outfits like the World Toilet Organisation, based in Singapore, now believe you have to make lavatories “as sexy as mobile phones” if you are to get people to accept them, and that means literally selling them. Once people have invested some of their own money in a loo, they will use it. The World Bank confirms that the most successful sanitation projects involve only a small subsidy.

Where building a fixed latrine is not possible—slum-dwellers seldom own the land they live on, or have much incentive to improve a site to which they have no legal rights—entrepreneurs may help out. The Peepoo is a personal, single-use bag that the Swedish founder of the company, Anders Wilhelmsen, describes as the hygienic version of Nairobi’s flying toilet, intended, to begin with, for the same Kenyan users. Sealed by knotting, it acts as a micro treatment plant to break down the excreta. Since the bag is made of degradable bio-plastic, when it has served its primary purpose it can be sold with its contents as fertiliser. Indeed, the hope is that a market will develop in which the same people will trade in the bags before and after use. Each will sell for 5-7 cents, about the same as a conventional plastic bag, and though a subsidy will be needed at first, the operation is meant to become self-sustaining, and indeed profitable.
Below are videos that explain the vision behind both Peepoo and the World Toilet Organization. Mark your calendars, World Toilet Day is on November 19th!

The Peepoo

World Toilet Organization (the other WTO)

UPDATE (6/1/2011): PRI's The World interviews Arno Rosemarin of the Stockholm Environment Institute, on the importance of low-cost/sanitary, ecological toilets.


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