World Toilet Day
19 November 2004
I get fed up with Keep Fit Day,
Wrong Trouser Day, and other ‘special’ days. But World Toilet Day
really matters. For me, the lavatory is the greatest medical
breakthrough. Forget heart transplants; forget even penicillin;
sanitation has saved more lives than anything else in history.
In British towns until the 1830s
the infant mortality rate was 50 per cent; of all the babies who were
born, only half of them lived to be five years old. The others were
killed by dysentery, typhoid, diarrhoea, and the newly imported
cholera. They died because the drinking water was contaminated with
sewage. Then came piped water, proper sewers, and the ubiquitous
water-closet, which separated the sewage from the drinking water.
Infant mortality in this country is now below 1 per cent because of
better sanitation, among a range of advances.
But the developing world has been
left behind; in Zambia, for example, 20 per cent of babies die before
they are five. In the time it takes you to read this article, a dozen
babies will have died from easily preventable diseases caused by poor
The answer is not water-closets
for all. Even in soggy Britain we scarcely have enough water, because
the water-closet is so wasteful. Every time you flush the loo you
throw away several litres of expensive drinking water, which has to go
off to a complex treatment plant to be recycled.
In 1860 the splendid Henry Moule,
Cambridge graduate and vicar, patented an earth-closet. The
water-closet, he said, is an abomination, for it simply shifts the
problem downstream. Sewage has to decompose somewhere, and by flushing
it away you are wasting excellent fertilizer, and condemning the stuff
to rot slowly under water in the cold. In contact with dry earth,
however, sewage dries out and decomposes aerobically in a few hours.
No pathogens; no smell.
Following his advice, I built my
own earth-closet – essentially a commode with a bucket inside, and a
supply of dried earth from the garden - a trowelful to be sprinkled on
top of each offering. The family used it for a month in the summer,
and were impressed. Little trouble, no smell, and a luxurious growth
of beans in the vegetable patch.
How does this relate to the world
problem of sanitation? In poor countries 2.6 billion people have no
access to lavatories; many simply go in the bush. This is ok for men,
but a nightmare for women, and especially girls. Often the girls have
to wait in discomfort until after dark, when they risk being molested
by men or by animals. Lack of clean, private school lavatories also
prevents girls from getting an education, particularly after puberty.
Of all children who fail to go to school, 60 per cent are girls.
Then there is disease. If sewage
is not disposed of safely, and you have nowhere to wash your hands,
you are bound to get contaminated. Urine is usually sterile, but a
teaspoonful of faeces contains several million bacteria, plus, in many
places, eggs and larvae of parasitic worms.
Millions of babies die. Millions
of women are in distress. The solution is to build latrines and simple
washing facilities. There are well-tried designs, from the simple pit
latrine costing as little as £5, to the ventilated improved-pit (VIP)
latrine, to the twin-vault composting privy, which costs around £15
and provides fertilizer to improve crops. A school latrine for 360
pupils and teachers can be constructed for £300.
All you need is a pit, ideally
brick-lined, a concrete slab on top with a hole in the middle, and
a hut around it built
from local materials. Rosemary Mande and her family built their own
VIP latrine in their village in Zambia. The construction work took
them six days, but she says, ‘Before I just used the bush, but since
having the latrine it is so much cleaner. Everyone is much happier
To provide everyone in the world
with adequate sanitation would cost another £10 billion a year, which
is less than we in the west spend on pet food. That is why World
Toilet Day matters. You can help through WaterAid; phone 020 7793 4500
or visit their website www.wateraid.org.