Friday, November 9, 2007

Toilets for the Third World: Necessity or Extravagance?

The chronic lack of clean and safe drinking water coupled with the ever- growing spread of water – borne diseases. Will the ubiquitous “modern” toilet be the solution to the Third World nation’s water problems?

By: Vanessa Uy

When I heard about the Inaugural World Toilet Summit 2007 and Expo discuss their plans to alleviate the sanitation problems of 2.6 billion people who don’t have access to proper –i.e. hygienic – toilet facilities, I asked myself Why did the “affluent” West took so long in addressing this problem? Is it hard to figure out the link between keeping the communal groundwater safe by keeping the communal toilet hygienic by modern standards? Nonetheless I just hope that the summit achieve it’s “lofty goal” of providing toilets for the Third World “poor”.

One of the problems that needs to be tackled in the World Toilet Summit 2007 so that their goal would succeed is the design of a low-cost toilet design that uses less water than typical toilets used in the “Industrialized West”. A typical Western toilet uses 1.6 gallons of water to flush 250 grams of fecal matter safely. But this kind of toilet needs to be supported by an existing sewage system which most Third World countries don’t have or existing ones are in need of repair. A “modern” toilet that uses the fraction of the water for flushing than a typical “Western” toilet is in the pipeline. And with a cost of US$30 or less, this could well be the “appropriate technology” needed to meet the demands of Third World conditions.

In the past, the peasants of the Orient had used their rice paddies as the communal toilet. Even though this practice has the advantage of using human fecal matter as a source of free organic fertilizer, in densely populated communities the practice could easily initiate cholera epidemics or other water borne diseases. Composting type toilets had since been in current use in some parts of Vietnam and China, but it safely works only in sparsely populated communities.

In affluent societies, we frequently take the humble modern toilet for granted. Since it’s a necessity when it comes to a vital –albeit relatively disgusting – part of human metabolism, toilets are somewhat a taboo topic in the industrial world. The industrialized world’s Victorian-era perception of the ubiquitous toilet had made the affluent citizens of our planet had forgotten that the humble toilet could be a lifesaver in the Third World.

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