22 March 2006

Toilets will save the world! ... Uh, what?

I recently heard in the news that 70% of India's population is without "modern flushing toilets". Apparently, until that number goes down, the country will not rise to the economic challenges of the 21st century.

Um, is that so bad?

Are people really aware of how much waste is produced using flush toilets? Millions of litres of water are contaminated daily because we pee in a ceramic bowl and send it out to sea in a nice "envelope" of otherwise drinkable water.

Terri Lynn was recently on an environmental compound where they used compost toilets. It differs from an outhouse in that the toilet is indoors, and rather than pooping into a big pit, the waste is collected in a container, along with the (unbleached, biodegradable) toilet paper. Then you go to your handy bucket of sawdust, grab a big ol' scoop, and proceed to smother your newly deposited waste. These toilets are about as sanitary and as smelly as what we consider "conventional" toilets. The waste is kept contained, and on a daily basis, one does not have to come in contact with feces. When the container is full, one ideally brings it out to the larger compost pile, uses it as garden manure (ideal if you eat a diet low in saturated fats and preservatives, and high in organic, non-chemically fertilized foods), or -- in a progressive society -- it is picked up with other waste and brought to a municipal compost facility.

This isn't a new idea. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo writes an entire chapter about flushing millions of dollars (I believe he calls the "francs") down the sewers. He was frankly obsessed with the sewers. Whole areas of his plot-line arefocusedd on the damn things.... I digress.

Human waste is not much different than animal waste in its ability to restore nutrients to the soil and protect vegetation from disease. Hugo posits that we should be collecting this waste and giving it to farmers, who spend (waste) millions of dollars a year on commercial fertilizers or trying to cultivate in poor-quality soils.

Back to India. The news story I heard talked about the people in the lowest caste who find employment cleaning out the poop bins of the upper classes and scraping it into the open-air sewers that run along streets in towns and villages across the nation. These people are not allowed to work elsewhere. The only way to crawl out of the gutter (excuse the pun), is when foreign aid sets up workshops where they can produce goods that get shipped overseas as fair trade goods.

But, if the good people in government would launch a massive infrastructure program, bringing indoor plumbing and flushing toilets to even the most humble mud shack, then suddenly the caste system would crumble and the Untouchable class would be liberated in a waterfall of glory. Except they'd all be completely unemployed. Oh, except for the ones who manage to scrub the poop smell off them long enough to get a job interview with municipal water services. Oh, but they're all women, so they would probably be denied employment based on patriarchal religious beliefs. Oh, well. At least no one has to touch poop anymore.

I think we in the Western world have learned that flushing toilets carry with them a host of their own problems. The city of Boston spent about $4 billion USD to clean up hundreds of years of sewage flow into its harbour. Many cities are being forced to build massive water treatment plants that use hundreds of kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. While not a bad idea for dealing with a problem, shouldn't we be looking at solutions on the front end, instead of quick-fix building projects that benefit multinational corporations and deprive cities of badly needed tax dollars that get re-routed to such projects?

When it comes to my own toilet excursions, I'm as squeamish as anyone. I do not like the thought of coming in close contact with poop (or worse,diarrheaa). I don't like the smell, I can't imagine the texture without gagging, I couldn't pick up after my own dog without some major gagging, and the thought of changing a diaper makes me seriously consider adopting a nice toilet-trained child in the 4-5 years range. Poop makes me uncomfortable. But I'm starting to think that I'm as much socially conditioned to not like poop as I am naturally aversive.

After all this time, haven't we come close to proving that flush toilets aren't the solution? They are another one of our modern conveniences constructed as a quick fix without consideration of the long-term implications or impact. It's all well and good to flush the potential disease away, but I think we should give some consideration to our little fishy friends who are suffocating in a cesspool we're helping create and sustain with every flush.

I'm not saying that we should all rip out our toilets and indoor plumbing. But we can support agencies that offer more economically viable and environmentally sustainable solutions to India's (and others') toilet woes, and encourage governments to do the same.

I'm not the only one who thinks so, though there are plenty of dissenters. I'm not going to do all yourresearchh for you, but I will get you started.

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