Rose George – How to save the world with sanitation

There is a feisty old woman in every village. In Maparanhanga, a remote village in Mozambique, reached by a several-hour-trip through potholes held together by scraps of road, the feisty old woman didn’t stand out at first. She sat alongside her female neighbors in a circle divided by age and gender — men standing on one side, women sitting in another group, children closing the circle — watching with some horror as a young man, unknown to her before today, asked her to eat some nice meat and rice.

It was considered high-class food in this rural area where meat stew is a luxury and two months of the year around harvesting are known as “the hunger period.” And still she said, no way, her face showing nothing but disgust. Why not? Because the nice meat and rice had been placed next to some human feces, carefully arranged on a piece of paper, and she had watched, along with the rest of the village, as flies happily flew from shit to food and back again.

This cannot have been a new event: as is the case in 80 percent of villages in Mozambique, and countless others worldwide, the only latrine available to villagers was bushland. Left in the open, the shit would surely have come back into the village on flip-flops and feet and fingers; on chicken claws and dog paws. That was how it had always been. Nothing wrong with it. But seeing the shit and food together was a revelation. There were gasps, screams, embarrassed laughter. The children covered their mouths; the old woman looked outraged. She was seeing her living environment with fresh eyes, and with those fresh eyes had come disgust.

And with disgust comes change — or so goes the theory of Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS). CLTS, a methodology aimed at improving the parlous state of global sanitation, was developed ten years ago by the Indian agricultural scientist Kamal Kar. Community-Led, because it’s not supposed to be about instruction but revelation. Total Sanitation, because that’s the goal: there’s little point in 90 percent of villagers having a latrine when the other ten percent are still tramping shit back into the living environment.

The need for this theory, and the change that comes with it, are more significant than one would assume. The idea of defecating in the open air to a toilet may seem unthinkable (though it’s the reality of four in ten people on the planet, or 2.6 billion), but it is a curious fact that even if someone has a latrine, they may not choose to use it despite the obvious and less obvious risks. Human excrement can carry up to fifty communicable diseases. Diarrhea, 90 percent of which is caused by food and water contaminated by excrement, kills a child every fifteen seconds. That’s more than AIDS, malaria, or measles, combined. Human feces are an impressive weapon of mass destruction.

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