The other day I was opening a charity magazine and found an insert from Practical Action inside. It’s about toilets in Bangladesh and I’ve seen it a couple of times now. Before I start, a word of warning – if you’re reading this over lunch, maybe come back later.
The story in the flyer is about Manosha, a Bangladeshi woman with a particularly repulsive job: emptying pit latrines. These are public toilets in slum communities, each one used by 50 people a day. They need to be emptied regularly, and the only way to do that is for a ‘sweeper’ to climb in and scoop out the muck. That falls, naturally, to people with little choice about how they make a living – Manosha is a widow, and has to take whatever work she can find.
India has the same problem, reinforced by the caste system. The ‘manual scavengers’ are at the very bottom rung of that system, “considered untouchable by other untouchables” as Rose George puts it. Despite various initiatives to end the practice, India still has thousands of people working this way.
Practical Action’s flyer is a fundraising appeal, and in their call to action they write that “tackling the wider issue is complex, but it starts with protecting sweepers so that they can empty the pit-latrines safely.” There are then options to sponsor overalls and gloves, or a pump so that the latrine can be emptied from the outside. I agree that it’s important to start somewhere, and Practical Action are working on the bigger picture too, but there’s something really sad about only being able to make it safer for someone to climb into a hole full of sewage.
Of course, the ideal is that one day Indian and Bangladeshi slums might have sewer systems, piped water and flushing toilets. In reality, that’s not likely. It would be very expensive, and there’s no room to build that kind of infrastructure without clearing away people’s homes. Perhaps most importantly, there’s not enough water.
As the World Resources Institute explains, India has a water scarcity problem, and it’s getting worse. Groundwater levels are falling in 54% of the country’s wells. More and more people are getting flushing toilets and installing showers, and water use for industry is rising too. If growth continues at this rate, then by 2030 demand will overshoot supply by 50%. That’s a major problem.
There are things that India can do to free up water resources, particularly by using water more efficiently in agriculture. But one obvious way to avoid crisis later is to leapfrog the flushing toilet. Rather than moving from a pit latrine to a Western style toilet and all the massive infrastructure that lies behind the U-bend, Indian urban communities could switch to waterless toilets.
These are established technologies. They can be installed without the expense of sewers and wastewater treatment plants. Waste would be processed into fertiliser rather than ending up in rivers. Jobs would still exist in collecting and processing human waste, but nobody would actually need to come in contact with it.
There are a variety of solutions, such as the PeePoo bag or dehydrating toilets, but my favourite company working on this is Loowatt. They’re my favourite for several reasons. Firstly, their dry toilet is every bit clean and neat – and therefore as aspirational – as a flushing toilet. Second, it’s a true circular economy approach. And they’ve developed it in Madagascar. I have more experience than I’d like of pit latrines in Madagascar, so I can picture the difference they are making all too vividly.
Instead of flushing waste ‘away’, the Loowatt toilet has a waterless flush mechanism that seals waste in biodegradeable plastic and drops it into a canister. It’s odourless and uses no energy. The cartridge is emptied when needed, with the waste processed to make biogas and then compost. The pilot projects in Madagascar run as businesses where people can use the toilets, pay for hot water warmed on the biogas, or charge their phones. Waste becomes a resource, and nobody has to clean out a pit latrine again.
So let’s make a difference to those working in the world’s worst job, in the most immediate way that we can – you can support Practical Action’s campaign here. And let’s see if we can deliver a better toilet next.