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.”