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.