World sanitation

The UN News Service reported last week that there are more mobile phones in India than there are toilets – 545 million of them, enough for 45% of the population in a country where over half the population can’t afford a loo.

It reminded me of a story on Foreign Correspondent I watched back in 2006. It also reminded me how amazed I was by the sheer enormity of the impact that poor sanitation was having on the people of India.

In a country of one billion people 80% don’t have a toilet and most in cities and towns aren’t connected to a sewage system anyway. That’s eight hundred million people going in the open in rivers, under bridges, anywhere they might hope to get some privacy…Each year 40,000 children under the age of five die from diarrhoea alone.

Human excreta cause cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid, infectious hepatitis, and hookworm. Over 50 kinds of infections can be transmitted via human waste from diseased people to healthy ones – the kinds of infections that cause nearly 80% of the diseases in developing countries. If I poo in the river up stream, you’ll be drinking it in the next town.

The World Toilet Organization is currently organising the 2010 World Toilet Summit. They advertise the summit as a way ‘to provide a platform to connect, share, learn and collaborate to meet the global target for sanitation’. But like all summits, they run the risk of being a talkfest. Of course, we need to talk and plan before we can achieve greater goals, but for organisations like Sublah International, all the talking must seem a poor cousin to action.

Sublah builds toilets – they’ve built over 2 million of them across India since the 1970s. For the first time in many of their lives, some of the poorest people in the world have access to toilets. Not only does it mean dignity for a society and culture that has traditionally valued personal hygiene, but the waste is properly treated with new and cheap technologies. Exciting technologies. Water is produced to such a quality that can be used on gardens. Methane is collected from the toilet facility and pumped to nearby homes as a free source of cooking gas. When there’s enough gas, entire villages are connected. There’s no need for a talkfest when you’re achieving stuff like this.

The year I first saw the Foreign Correspondent story, the Australian mocumentary Kenny was released. Australia loved the porta-loo plumber and his philosophies, and we weren’t ashamed to say that we loved the toilet humour. After only four months, the film had taken over $4.5 million at the Australian box office. When his Kenny’s World TV show began, I saw an interview with Kenny himself, Shane Jacobson, who spoke genuinely about the appalling state of sanitation in the world. I looked forward to seeing the program. Here was a chance for Channel Ten viewers to learn about something really important in among the poo jokes.

But sanitation is not glamourous, and the show disappointed. The show wasn’t ‘about people’ – it was about a likeable, suburban tradie going on holiday. It was a missed opportunity. There wasn’t even the hint of a talkfest.

Sublah’s cheapest toilets start at around $38 AUD. At last count, the world needed to build 100,000 toilets a day by 2015 just to halve the number of people without access to basic sanitation. I wonder how many toilets Sublah could buy with $4.59 million.

Louise Pine

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  1. That stat about mobile phones is astonishing, though I suppose it really shouldn’t be, since it’s just another indication of how badly we allocate resources. Equally, we might note that the cost of ending world hunger is estimated at $300 billion over a decade. Which sounds prohibitively high — until you recall that, as of Feb this year, the US and the UK had spent $704 billion on the war in Iraq.
    One would be interested to learn of any moral theory in which this comparison didn’t seem utterly, utterly evil.

  2. I suppose it depends on what statistics you quote. I do a little bit of work for the Grameen Bank, the original microcredit bank – they provide teeny tiny interest-free loans to the poorest of the poor. To give you an idea, we’ve just set up a series of $25 loans to a group of women in Tanzania who have 30 weeks to repay the loan. Local sustainable economies are created. Kids get fed.

    The total credit need of world’s 1.2 billion poor (some 200 million households) is estimated to be between $50 and $100 billion. That’s less than half of what donors currently give every year in overseas aid. So is the evil then that we know how to fix the problem but we don’t? What are we afraid of?

  3. Fascinating and terrible, Louise. Apart from your general point about the urgency and importance of sanitation – toilets – I like your sense of frustration about talk fests and popular culture that purports to address big global issues, like Kenny’s World, but is ultimately just about profit making. I didn’t see that particular example of the phenomenon but I’m often similarly astonished by the mass appeal of initiatives like Bono et al’s red circle ‘shopping to save Africa’ (as I remember) or shopping to save the environment.

    And yes, sometimes I think the evil is that we do know how to fix many problems but we don’t. Do you think we’re afraid of something? Or is it just inertia, small horizons, self-interest? And Jeff your example of UK and USA spending on the Iraq war vs money needed to feed the hungry of the world is perfect case in point. And we might mention the $700 billion tossed at Wall Street. Friedman’s monetarist economics would explain this as expedient, ‘rational’, and not evil – but then again, it would hardly pass as a moral theory.

    I’m also extremely interested Louise in fact you’ve done some work for the Grameen Bank – all the best to those women in Tanzania. Microfinance is one of the things I was planning to blog about here, but my knowledge of it is all second hand, so I’d love to hear more about your first-hand experience of microfinance. I’m especially interested in the fact that women, traditionally the biggest credit risks (well, in western macro finance theory), are proving to be the soundest micro borrowers. Not that that would surprise most people. Just economists seem to be staggered by it.

  4. Perhaps I was being too dramatic in suggesting that there was an evil in inaction, Jane, certainly when it comes to individual inaction. In ‘The life you can save’, Peter Singer talks about the complexity of our failure to act – he looks at our sense of doing more than our fair share (why should I give so much of my time and money when no one else is doing it), the relativity of wealth (I’m not rich compared to my neighbours, I can’t afford to give away my money), an inability to pinpoint the good that you do by giving aid (what if all my donated money goes to administration, what if it never gets where I want it to go). The work that Bono and his colleagues do makes people feel good, and operates in the context of this complexity, but it’s frustrating because it should be the first step in getting people to act. After a while I’m not sure that we can continue to justify the money spent on ‘raising awareness’ if there is no next step, no action. There is a direct, tactile link between me and the environment when I put my shoppping in a Green enviro bag, but there is no direct link between me and the sweatshop worker that has sewn together the shirt I’m buying. Perhaps we need to put sweatshop warnings on shirts like we put lung cancer warnings on cigarettes? Or perhaps, because we have so much trouble imagining poverty, we need greater leadership from government? I hope to write a bit about Grameen here as time goes on, but I think I like the work because it is ALL about action. The website is inexpensively put together (, the documents drawn up for potential lending partners overseas are created as simple Word documents, there is no money spent on rock concerts or bumper stickers – there is very little that is glamourous or hi-tech about the approach that the Grameen Bank takes. There doesn’t need to be.

  5. Interesting your comments from Peter Singer, Louise. I heard him talk on the subject at the Perth Writers’ Fest last year. Very dour he was. Not that I’d expect a song.
    I suppose what I was trying to say over Bono is that while I salute him for taking action on AIDS in Africa, or helping to fund the fight against it, I despair that the only way he – most of us? – can conceive of taking action is via consumerism, ie taking a cut when RED products are exchanged. Is shopping our only ethos, our only belief system, the only thing that gets us out of bed in the morning?
    I like your hands-on action approach. And I highly regard the Grameen Bank and others like it. I also like your suggestion that because we have so much trouble imagining poverty we need greater government leadership (if that’s not an oxymoron). Otherwise, sweatshop warnings it is.

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