Tag Archives: Rose George

Rotary tackles uncomfortable topic

Rotary International’s membership magazine The Rotarian has featured many provocative humanitarian concerns on its cover in the past few years, but it hit a new mark in the January [2010] issue.

The cover features a schematic drawing of a man and a woman, the type that is found on public restroom doors, and the words, “Billions of people have nowhere to go. What a mess.”

The article by Rose George tells in excruciating detail what it’s like in places where there is literally nowhere to do what human beings do several times a day except the side of the road or beside a tree in the woods. This “problem no one wants to talk about” is actually one of the world’s major health problems, she argues, affecting 2.6 billion people who have no sanitary toilets.

Why? Because the bacteria in human feces left out in the open are carried about on hands and feet into living spaces. “It finds its way into food and drink, with desperate consequences,” George writes. “Diarrhea — 90 percent of which is caused by contaminated food or water — kills up to two million people a year, most of them children.”

Diarrhea kills more children under age 5 than AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria. “In graphic terms,” she explains, “diarrhea’s death toll is equivalent to two jumbo jets full of children dying every four hours.”

Even so, the taboo nature of the topic and cultural differences that prevent uneducated people from accepting the convenience of a sanitary toilet are tough to break through. George notes that the framers of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals included sanitation in the goals with reluctance, even though preventing diarrhea would enhance the eagerly embraced goals of universal primary education, eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and reducing child mortality.

Money and government concern won’t solve the problem alone, however. George tells of a failed attempt by the Indian government to introduce new sanitary latrines in the 1980s. They went unused “at least for their intended purpose,” she writes. “Maybe because they were nicer than people’s houses, so they were turned into extra storage spaces or temples.” She explains that installing new “hardware” has to be accompanied with “software”: human psychology and language to get people to embrace the sanitary toilet and abandon the old ways.

Rotary Clubs have been involved in public sanitation almost since the first club was established by Paul Harris in Chicago in 1905. The club’s very first public service project in 1907 was building “comfort stations” outside Chicago’s City Hall. Many clubs have supported international sanitation projects, the most successful of which are done in partnership with local leaders.

[The Rotary Foundation has granted more than US$4.7 million for water and sanitation projects over the past five years. An accompanying article by Jenny Llakmani, describes some of Rotary International’s sanitation projects and the technology options used].

Eco squat toilet. (1) Fecal collection (2) Urine collection (3) Washing area (4) Bamboo fertilized by wash water (5) Bamboo superstructure

We expect this cover article will get lots of Rotary Clubs talking about sanitation projects in remote corners of the world. George suggests enlisting celebrities “who happily promote a clean and shiny water faucet in a dusty village, with a photogenic child in tow, but don’t bother to take a few steps over to the latrine that has enabled that child to go back to school and prolonged her life.”

Need a new cause, Brad and Angelina? Or how about Tiger Woods? After all, he’s taking a break from golf and needs to rehabilitate his reputation.

Seriously, we hope this provocative Rotarian cover story brings attention to an uncomfortable subject that sorely needs addressing. Think about it. If the indoor toilet in your home or place of work mysteriously disappeared, where would you go?

Source: Independent Mail, 30 Dec 2009

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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The politics of toilets – Rose George

The Politics of Toilets, By Rose George

On Earth Day, let’s not forget the dirt. The planet is soiled with sewage, on land and sea. Our waste is the biggest marine pollutant there is, according to the United Nations Environment Program. In the developing world, ninety percent of sewage is discharged untreated into oceans and rivers, where its high nutrient content can suffocate the life out of seas, contributing to dead zones (405 worldwide and counting).

There are dead zones on land, too. Human waste contaminates environments all over the world, rich and poor. Imagine getting up at 4 a.m. in darkness, trekking to a nearby bush or field, and going to the bathroom out in the open. Imagine then being hit by a farmer who doesn’t like you toileting in his field, or being raped by someone taking advantage of the dark, which you need to preserve your modesty. The quarter of the world’s population without access to sanitation – not even a bucket nor a box – don’t have to imagine this. It’s their daily reality. What’s more, all that excrement lying around has deadly consequences. More children – up to 2 million a year, or one every 15 seconds or so – die of diarrhea, 90 percent of which is due to fecal contamination in food or liquid, than of TB, malaria or HIV/AIDS. Diarrhea is the world’s most effective weapon of mass destruction.

That’s the gloom. The good news is that it’s solvable. And solving the world’s sewage mess would be such a bargain that it should appeal to politicians holding the purse strings even in these straitened times. Investing $1 in sanitation reaps $8 in health costs averted and labor days saved. Look at it another way: not investing $1 in sanitation loses you $7. Last year the World Bank calculated that poor sanitation cost Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam between 1.4 and 7.2 percent of their GDP. When Peru had a cholera outbreak in 1991, losses from tourism and agricultural revenue were three times greater than the total money spent on sanitation in the previous decade.

If numbers are too technical, let’s get practical: Installing latrines and clean water supply in a typical village has dramatic effects.

In the far reaches of Orissa, India, I visited the leader of a village named Samiapalli, which until recently had no sanitation and endemic open defecation in nearby woods and along roadsides. Of course, those weren’t the villagers’ only problems: they also faced rampant alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and persistent caste discrimination. Today is different. Although it took 162 meetings to get everyone to agree to install one (and to contribute to the cost), everybody has a latrine, bathing room and running water. With the confidence gained through those 162 meetings, women had kicked out the illegal alcohol brewers (and tied the most persistently violent men to a lamp-post). Eighty percent more girl children now went to school, the leader told me. Women were earning money growing peanuts and selling other goods at market, with the free time they had gained from not having to spend hours finding somewhere private to do their business, or to fetch cripplingly heavy water. Diarrhea had dropped dramatically (a latrine can reduce disease by 40 percent; a clean water supply reduces it by 20 percent.)

Sanitation isn’t a symptom of development. It can trigger it. “It’s the hardest entry point,” says Joe Madiath, whose NGO Gram Vikas had helped bring the toilet revolution to Samiapalli. “But once you succeed with sanitation, you can do anything.”

Samiapalli’s story, and those of other sanitation success stories, makes the lack of international resources for sanitation baffling. A target of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (though it was included late and against great opposition), sanitation continues to lag far behind access to clean water, an easier topic to sell and publicize. Celebrities happily promote a village’s shiny new faucets, preferably with a photogenic child nearby, but fail to make the logical step over to the new latrines that have lengthened that child’s life and enabled her to go to school.

These priorities persist behind the cameras. The United Nations Human Development Report noted in 2006 noted that water and sanitation budgets in most countries are less than 0.5% of GDP; and of that pittance, 90% goes on clean water supply. Things may be improving, but slowly: The times when much of the U.S.’s overseas water and sanitation budget went toward restoring infrastructure in places it had helped destroy – notably Iraq and Afghanistan – are thankfully over. Paul Simon’s Water for the Poor Act has actually been allocated proper money ($300 million), and the Reports to Congress about the act laudably mention “sanitation.” But there are still 994 references to water in the report, and only 249 mentions of “sanitation.”

This is understandable, given how long sanitation has been in water’s shadow. And the fact that sanitation is mentioned at all is cheering. But we must not let that semantic imbalance translate into an imbalance of funds allocated for sanitation — the most off-track target, after all, of all the targets in the Millennium Development Goals.

The International Year of Sanitation ended in December, but our pressure on politicians and donor agencies should not. Funds that have long gushed away to the cause of clean water, at the expense of sanitation, should be diverted back. In financially straitened times, it makes economic sense to invest in the most cost-effective health prevention mechanism we have. With a new Global Sanitation Fund up and running, it couldn’t be easier. Earth Day is as good a day as any to remember that sewage may be dirt, but sanitation shouldn’t be treated like it.

Rose George is a freelance journalist and author of The Big Necessity , an eye-opening report on the shocking realities of the world’s sanitation crisis.

Source – Washington Post Global

Rose George – Making sanitation sexy

WASHINGTON, Apr 14 (IPS) – Though the issue of human excreta is often taboo in polite company, human waste and sanitation are starting to take their rightful place in debates about development and human health.

But indications are that goals for sanitation are lagging behind other areas of development, leaving experts wondering how to make the topic “sexier”.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by U.N. member nations in 2001, laid out concrete targets to be achieved by 2015. But the goal for sanitation is the most behind schedule, said Rose George, journalist and author of the recent book, “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters”.

“Sanitation is the most off-track Millennium Development Goal,” George said, citing the calculation that 95,000 toilets would need to be installed per day for the goal to be met – well above what is occurring now. “At this rate, it’s not going to happen.”

George was speaking at a forum featuring her book as the last event of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Year of Water, which featured many events over the course of the 2008 – 2009 academic year.

“One of the lessons of sanitation is that it can have a dramatic effect,” George said, noting that life spans increased by 20 or 30 years in London after proper sanitation was implemented.

“But it’s also important to development,” said George, pointing to the example that girls with access to latrines at school are more likely to go to class. Women who have attended school give birth to fewer children and are more likely to become economically viable.

There is “no downside to good sanitation,” she said.

But bringing the subject of sanitation to the fore has been a back and forth battle. George noted that the subject had been addressed by the likes of Karl Marx, Rudyard Kipling, Anton Chekhov, and even Mahatma Gandhi, whom George said declared sanitation more important than independence.

George, whose dry sense of humor comes through clearly – saying early on that she “wrote a book about crap” – was, nevertheless, inclined towards the dire sanitary situation facing much of the world.

“One quarter of the world’s population has no sanitation – not even a bucket or a box,” she said, noting that diarrhea ranks as the second leading cause of death among children. Issues of sanitation, she said, were an “enormous unspoken …crisis.”

The developing world wasn’t the only part of her story, said Geoff Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, which co-sponsored the event with SAIS.

Sanitation “is framed in a developing country context,” said Dabelko, who interviewed George at the event. Dabelko was pleased to see that developed countries were included in George’s journey through the world of feces and what to with it.

But the central focus of the conversation was squarely on the developing world.

“I spent time in India because there’s quite a lot of sh*t in India,” said George.

She said open defecation – by roadsides, railroad tracks, or wherever out in the open – is still practiced in India. The practice can lead to fecal matter being tracked back into living spaces and ending up in water and food supplies.

As a result, said George, a prize awarded by the president of India was being given to villages that “stamp out open defecation.”

Implementing proper sanitation can also be less costly than dealing with the negative health effects of unsanitary environments.

“Sanitation is a bargain,” said George. “If you invest a dollar in sanitation, you save seven dollars in healthcare costs” – a point George said should not be lost on governments in a period of economic downturn that has left many of them strapped for cash.

George said that meeting the MDG target of cutting sanitation deficiencies worldwide in half would cost about 95 billion dollars. But that cost pales in comparison to the more than 600 billion dollars that those communities would need to spend on health problems related to poor sanitation.

Despite all its easily observed benefits, sanitation is a difficult subject to raise public awareness about. Part of the problem is the taboo of discussing topics related to excrement in public.

“We are complex creatures, and we have complex codes about hygiene,” George said. “So you have to be careful before you install a toilet on somebody’s head” – as a recent Indian cartoon had depicted some efforts at bringing sanitation.

But George and others were encouraged by the publicity that her book has gotten for the issue, and the success of another campaign: to remove the taboos from sex and condoms so as to deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis.

While acknowledging that she was a “shock-jock target” – referring to radio hosts who practice potty humour – because she “talks about sh*t”, George said that 99 percent of the interviews she has done on her book have been about the serious issues around sanitation.

Other methods, George suggested, could also make sanitation a more palatable issue across the globe.

“Sanitation should be a little sexier,” she said, suggesting that a major celebrity could raise awareness for the issue like Angelina Jolie has for other issues. George joked she was “still waiting for [actor] Matt Damon to call.”

Source – IPS News

Rose George – Yellow Is the New Green

Yellow Is the New Green, New York Times Op-Ed, Feb. 27, 2009

By ROSE GEORGE, Woolley, England

IN the far reaches of Shaanxi Province in northern China, in an apple-producing village named Ganquanfang, I recently visited a house belonging to two cheery primary-school teachers, Zhang Min Shu and his wife, Wu Zhaoxian. Their house wasn’t exceptional — a spacious yard, several rooms — except for the bathroom. There, up a few steps on a tiled platform, sat a toilet unlike any I’d seen. Its pan was divided in two: solid waste went in the back, and the front compartment collected urine. The liquids and solids can, after a decent period of storage and composting, be applied to the fields as pathogen-free, expense-free fertilizer.

From being unsure of wanting a toilet near the house in the first place — which is why the bathroom is at the far end of their courtyard — the couple had become so delighted with it that they regretted not putting it next to the kitchen after all.

What does this have to do with you? Mr. Zhang and Ms. Wu’s weird toilet — known as a “urine diversion,” or NoMix (after a Swedish brand), toilet — may have things to teach us all.

In the industrialized world, most of us (except those who have septic tanks) rely on wastewater-treatment plants to remove our excrement from the drinking-water supply, in great volumes. (Toilets can use up to 30 percent of a household’s water supply.) This paradigm is rarely questioned, and I understand why: flush toilets, sewers and wastewater-treatment plants do a fine job of separating us from our potentially toxic waste, and eliminating cholera and other waterborne diseases. Without them, cities wouldn’t work.

But the paradigm is flawed. For a start, cleaning sewage guzzles energy. Sewage treatment in Britain uses a quarter of the energy generated by the country’s largest coal-fired power station.

Then there is the nutrient problem: Human excrement is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which is why it has been a good fertilizer for millenniums and until surprisingly recently. (A 19th-century “sewage farm” in Pasadena, Calif., was renowned for its tasty walnuts.) But when sewage is dumped in the seas in great quantity, these nutrients can unbalance and sometimes suffocate life, contributing to dead zones (405 worldwide and counting, according to a recent study). Sewage, according to the United Nations Environment Program, is the biggest marine pollutant there is. Wastewater-treatment plants work to extract the nutrients before discharging sewage into water courses, but they can’t remove them all.

And there’s also the urine problem. Urine, like any liquid, is a headache for wastewater managers, because most sewer systems take water from street drains along with the toilet, shower and kitchen kind. Population growth is already taxing sewers. (London’s great network was built in the late 19th century with 25 percent extra capacity, but a system designed for three million people must now serve more than twice as many.) When a rainstorm suddenly sends millions of gallons of water into an already overloaded system, the extra must be stored or — if storage is lacking — discharged, untreated, into the nearest river or harbor. Each week, New York City sends about 800 Olympic-size swimming pools’ worth of sewage-polluted water into nearby waters because there’s nowhere else for it to go.

This probably won’t kill us, but it’s not ideal. Environmental scientists in California have calculated that sewage discharged near 28 Southern California beaches has contributed to up to 1.5 million excess gastrointestinal illnesses, costing as much as $51 million in health care. We can do better.

Urine might be one way forward. Before engineers scoff into their breakfast, consider that since at least 135,000 urine-diversion toilets are in use in Sweden and that a Swiss aquatic institute did a six-year study of urine separation that found in its favor. In Sweden, some of the collected urine — which contains 80 percent of the nutrients in excrement — is given to farmers, with little objection. “If they can use urine and it’s cheap, they’ll use it,” said Petter Jenssen, a professor at the Agricultural University of Norway.

The price of phosphorus fertilizers rose 50 percent in the past year in some parts of the world, as phosphate reserves, the largest of which are in Morocco and China, dwindle. (The gloomiest predictions suggest they’ll be gone in 100 years.) Although half of sewage sludge in the United States is already turned into cheap fertilizer known as “biosolids,” urine contains hardly any of the pathogens or heavy metals that critics of biosolids claim remain in mixed sewage, despite treatment.

The rest of Sweden’s collected urine goes to municipal wastewater plants, but in much smaller volume so it’s easier to deal with. Research by Jac Wilsenach, now a civil engineer in South Africa, found that removing even half of the nutrient-rich urine enables the bacteria in the aeration tanks to munch all the nitrogen and phosphate matter in solid waste in a single day rather than the usual 30. Urine diversion also makes for richer sludge and produces more methane, which can be turned into gas or electricity, Mr. Wilsenach said. In short, separating urine turns a guzzler of energy into a net producer.

Putting urine to use is not new. A friend’s grandmother remembers the man coming round for the buckets 60 years ago in Yorkshire, which were then sold to the tanning industry. The flush toilet ended that, and no one — my friend’s nan included — wants outside privies again. “Any innovation in the toilet that increases owner responsibility is probably seen as downwardly mobile,” said Carol Steinfeld, of New Bedford, Mass., who imports NoMix toilets into the United States.

Then there’s the sitting problem: in most urine-diversion toilets, a man must empty his bladder sitting down. This wouldn’t be a problem in some countries — Germany recently introduced a toilet-seat alarm that admonishes standers to sit — but it has been in others. Professor Jenssen was flummoxed by one participant at a training workshop in Cuba who said firmly, “If a man sits, he is homosexual.”

For now, “ecological sanitation” — or more sustainable sewage disposal — thrives mostly in fast-industrializing countries like China and India, which have money to invest in alternatives but few sewers. A subculture of composting toilets exists in the United States, but only a few hundred urine-diversion toilets have been imported, Ms. Steinfeld said.

Necessity — whether occasioned by fertilizer prices, carbon footprints or crippling capital investments — could bring change. At a recent wastewater conference, I watched in astonishment as dour engineers rushed to question a speaker who had been talking about stabilization ponds, which clean sewage using water, flow control, bacteria and light. Normally, such things would be cast into the box of hippie-ish ecological sanitation. But to managers struggling with energy quotas and budget limitations, more sustainable, less energy-intensive sanitation may be starting to make sense.

As Mr. Zhang told me with a smile: “For me, whatever the toilet is, I use it. For example, here we eat wheat. When we go to the south of China, we eat rice. Otherwise we starve.”

It’s been more than 100 years since Teddy Roosevelt wondered aloud whether “civilized people ought to know how to dispose of the sewage in some other way than putting it into the drinking water.” The Zhang family toilet is not the perfect answer to Roosevelt, as it still uses some water, though 80 percent less than a regular flush toilet uses. But at least it’s the result of someone asking the right questions.

Rose George is the author of “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.”

Toilet talk can save lives

If someone compiled a list of things people would prefer never to talk about, somewhere near the top would be human excrement. It is, to say the least, hardly a topic of public conversation.

Unfortunately, our nose-wrinkling aversion to toilet talk can hinder what in fact are important discussions about sanitation. (…)

Because taboos have always surrounded human excretion, when it gets talked about all it is usually under the cover of euphemisms. Even health organizations don’t like talking (in the kind of detail that is necessary) about these issues. “Public health professionals talk about water-related diseases, but that is a euphemism for the truth,” writes Ms. George. “These are shit-related diseases.” (…)

Read all The Ottawa Citizen

Rose George: The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters

Related posts: 

‘The Big Necessity’: Plumbing the Global Politics of Human Waste

Human Waste in the Developing World

Even Their Shadows Can’t Be Touched, Other Tales of Human Waste at Bloomberg.com

Where Does The Poop Go?

Go Ahead, Say It: Shit–There, Now We Can Seriously Discuss Sanitation at ScientificAmerican.com

One Smart Book About Number Two at Newsweek

Go Ahead, Say It: Shit–There, Now We Can Seriously Discuss Sanitation

Sanitation doesn’t get a lot of headlines but, all told, its absence kills 6,000 children a day, according to British charity Water Aid. And the solution chosen by the developed world—the flush toilet—is running up against limits in the amount of water available to flush away human waste.

The United Nations has attempted to fill this gap by securing a pledge from developed countries to halve the number of people without any form of sanitation—whether basic outdoor latrines or indoor toilets—by 2015 as part of its Millennium Development Goals (a series of goals for world development, ranging from alleviating poverty to fighting diseases like AIDS). To accomplish this task, however, a toilet would have to be installed every second between now and then, according to the U.N.

As a result, this objective may be the furthest of these goals from being realized. At present rates of progress, sub-Saharan Africa, for example, would only reach the target by 2076, according to Water Aid. And the developed world is in no better shape: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates predict a $122 billion spending shortfall on wastewater treatment necessities between 2000 and 2019.

In an effort to better understand this sanitation crisis, Scientific American’s David Biello spoke with Rose George, author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.

Read More – Scientific American