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!

13 thoughts on “Let’s talk about shit”

  1. Recently read this book called “Endless Filth- The saga of the Bhangis” by Mari Marcel Thekaekara. It opened my eyes to see sanitation as a Human Rights issue and not just one of public health.

  2. Vincent Egan: thanks for your note. Yes, you should be surprised if this were my languge. However, it is not. The article is by Dr. Anand Philip, a medical doctor, and they do have the freedom to be as obscene as possible.

    Now let me give you a small piece of advise: Christians like you should check your facts before you make a comment in public.

    Johnson C. Philip

  3. I have to say I am shocked. You are a leader in a Christian University and you use this obscene language? I do not like opening my twitter account and seeing such language from my “Christian” colleagues. The Bible tells us not to allow any corrupt communication proceed from out mouths, and I strongly believe that includes obscene language.

  4. Honestly…An important topic about which increased awareness is warranted and needed, no doubt. But really, in our quest to be hip and “relevant”, do we discard all bounds of propriety, decency, appropriateness? Do we really have to go with shock value to get anyone’s attention at all. Shall I take your exhortation and information and, this Sunday, shall I preach from the pulpit about “shit” and the need to talk about it and do something about it? Why stop there? Since people are having sex of all kinds, at an alarming rate, with equally devastating outcomes (abortion, std’s, trafficking, etc.), why don’t we talk about the problem of rampant f___king while we’re at it?!

    Call me old school, and say I’m missing the point (which I am not), but our choice of language is a reflection of our heart. Would Jesus be shocked by a sinner’s vernacular? Probably not. Does a holy God deserve a tongue that is becoming more sanctified, not less? I think so. When I find myself sitting in a church board meeting and the board members increasingly comfortable using profanity as the mood strikes them; when I find a trend of “emergents” increasingly using profanity in their sermons/talks to supposedly make them more hip and their words more impacting, then I say we have descended to less that we are in Christ. Are we still in the 7th grade locker room impressing one another with our growing vocabulary of profaneness, and the boldness to use it? I, a person who cut his teeth in a family whose favorite cuss word was “Jesus Christ”, among others, am well programmed with such vocabulary, and struggle to keep that tendency under on a daily basis. We can do better than this, brethren! We must!

    Since Jesus clearly taught that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from from the heart, I would encourage the author to ask himself if there might be some s__t there that needs tending to, as well as the horrible need to address human waste and its inherent problems in the streets of the nations. Then again, maybe I am just a raving, legalistic, religious nut.


  5. Thanks for the nice article, and thanks for mentioning Akvopedia! It can be found at http://www.akvopedia.org.

    I should mention that almost all the material on the sanitation portal at Akvopedia was derived from a great compendium done by Eawag in Switserland. They also published the compendium in spanish and french. Available here: http://www.eawag.ch/forschung/sandec/publikationen/compendium_e/index_EN
    And Rose: thanks for the great book, I enjoyed it very much!

Comments are closed.