Let’s talk about shit

By the time you finish reading this sentence at least one child would have died in india of diarrhea. The most important cause of diarrhea is  contaminated drinking water and poor sanitation.

Rose George is a British journalist [wikipedia] and author whose book “The big nessecity [amazon]” addressed the issue of lack of sanitation as one of the greatest killers of the modern world.

This is her on Shit and India.

How/when did you get interested in sanitation?
It was a long story. I used to work at a magazine called COLORS, owned by but left alone by Benetton. The editor was Oliviero Toscani, famed for the scandalous Benetton ads. One day he decided to do a coffee-table picture book about shit called CACAS. I researched some of the very short texts that accompanied the pics and thought them fascinating. I was astonished that I could consider myself well-educated and not know, for example, that a quarter of the world’s population has no toilet. But I also learned that the topic of sanitation could be entertaining, and that urine can change the colour of your wallpaper, and that sewage in the streets probably led to the invention of high heels, and that kings used to defecate in public and eat in private. It is a rich, wide, deep and endlessly fascinating topic.

After the book, how do you keep being involved in the sanitation world-if you do
Yes, I do. I keep a blog about mostly sanitation matters at www.rosegeorge.com and still write op-eds here and there about sanitation.

I also do a lot of lectures about sanitation. In the last month, I gave a keynote speech to 2500 freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania, who had been assigned my book as part of the Penn Reading Project; then flew to Stockholm to hand out awards to journalists writing about sanitation and water; then to Hong Kong to talk at a conference of 1500 investors, to persuade them that shit is a scandalously underexploited resource, both as fertilizer and as energy.

What are, if there are, your most memorable experiences in India?

You don’t forget three days in a slum in a hurry. I originally intended to stay overnight in a slum but chickened out. I wouldn’t have been worried about the accommodation; all the houses I visited were pristine. But as soon as you step foot outside you are overwhelmed by filth. And of course, there are hardly any toilets. On the other hand, I met some fabulous people in India who I think of as sanitation footsoldiers. Milon Nag, who runs a plastics factory outside Pune and who has developed a low-cost plastic sanitation slab that is now regularly used in emergencies; Dr. Mapuskar, a doctor near Pune who arrived in his village – now a town – to find no toilets and became a sanitation evangelist, persuading 100% of people to install toilets and even human shit biogas digesters (a miracle in India); or the wonderful staff of Gram Vikas in Orissa, who are attempting to get villages to install 100% Total Sanitation. In one village they went to, it took 162 meetings for people to agree but they did and now disease has been dramatically diminished and the village school teacher told me 80% more girl children go to school. People think a toilet is a symptom of development but actually it can trigger it.
What are 3 easy-to-solve problems that governments and other agencies should tackle immediately?
1. Stop focusing on clean water at the expense of sanitation. There is no point installing one without the other.
2. Switch mindsets: Expensive wastewater utility systems are not always the solution. There is innovation in sanitation: use it.
3. Stop thinking that development has to cost a fortune. Invest in software like human behaviour change-makers. Persuasion doesn’t cost much but it can reap so much.

What are 2 of the knottier issues?
There is only one knotty issue: Diarrhoea. It is astonishing in 2010 that children die of something that is easily curable, and that they die at the rate of one every fifteen seconds. Astonishing and disgraceful.

How can the behavioural change be brought about rapidly- it happened within a generation in most of the world- why are some parts lagging behind so much?
Because often the investment goes to hardware and not to the software. Humans are complicated creatures. They can be persuaded but it takes marketing psychology. People have to want to use a toilet, and that is not always a straightforward thing to bring about, to someone who has been shitting in the bush quite happily for generations. There has to be investment in persuasion.

Some practical technological solutions?
Far too many to list. Practical Action does good fact-sheets on sanitation solutions. Akvopedia has a great database of technology.

We dont like talking about shit, its considered boorish and uncouth. But of all times now, we need to start talking about shit seriously. The sanitation challenge india faces is not going away anytime now, and is getting worse in some places like big cities.

I will be talking about shit in 1 or 2 more follow-up posts at the end of which I hope to have converted you into a fellow foot soldier for shit. In the mean time, do look through the Akovopedia portal on sanitaion for some great technologies that can radically reduce cost and improve outcome in implementing sanitation. Viva la revolution!