Rethinking the Toilet


We, the sanitation professionals, are proud to be celebrating World Toilet Day because toilet or sanitation used to be the least priority and ignored topic. Today, the toilet is a top agenda in the development sector, slowly realizing that the toilet has many values besides pooing!


However, we still need a serious debate about what does the TOILET mean? Understanding of the toilet, for the most individual, is simply a place where people can ‘poop’ in comfort, safety, and with dignity. Most of the people think that the toilet means the infrastructure or superstructure that consists of the simple pan to fancy commode with different types of flushing devices to get rid of the shit so that no one can see after the poo! No one (highly qualified, illiterate, rich or poor) worries where poo goes after the flush.


Creating Open Defecation Free (ODF) zones or Khula Disha Mukta Chettra is a common sanitation agenda in Nepal and compliance with other efforts currently underway in the South Asian region. Yes, the campaign itself is excellent and is accelerating toilet coverage. Nepal reached more than 85% of toilet coverage within very short span of time because of this movement. But this should not be an end goal. We need to measure the impact of the campaign in improving the public health (reduction in outbreaks of water-borne diseases, etc.) and reduction in the economic burden incurred by the general population due to poor sanitation practices and lack of available infrastructure.


Let’s take an example of Bangladesh; the first country in South Asia to achieve the MDG target in sanitation. Bangladesh has now less than 1% of people practicing open defecation. But the country has been unable to reduce expenses incurred due to poor sanitation. The country still wastes 4 billion USD, annually, due to poor sanitation. Similarly, a recent study of Lixil, Oxford Economics, and Water Aid, 2016, indicated that the expenses incurred by various countries due to poor sanitation increased by 40 billion USD just in five years from 2010 to 2015.


It has been estimated that about 3.4 million people die annually from diseases associated with pathogens in water, like cholera, typhoid, infectious hepatitis, polio, cryptosporidiosis, ascariasis and diarrheal diseases. Many of these diseases are directly linked to the presence of human excreta in the water and the environment. Therefore, without safe management of human excreta from the toilet, we have no reason to be proud. We all know most of our rivers are turning into open sewer canals and previously pristine water bodies like lakes and ponds are being converted into large waste collection pits because all the wastewater is being discharged without any treatment. Concurrently, we are polluting our groundwater because of the poor designs for septic tanks and pits.


Whenever we poo, we need to keep in mind that one gram of poop may contain up to 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 parasite eggs. These are the pathogens that can easily mix into water, food, soil anywhere. Unless we manage to eliminate these pathogens, we should not claim that we have managed the shit safely. Fundamentally, there are three ways to tackle the above-mentioned problems:

a. Build sewer system including Centralized Wastewater Treatment Plants (WTP): The scale of capital required ensures that most of the developing countries will not be able to afford to lay down the sewer network and build WTP. It even may not be affordable to the developed countries. For instance, Jefferson County, Alabama, US filed for bankruptcy due to their massive investments in the sewer systems. Large scale system cannot bring about people’s participation. The public sector has to finance such projects almost entirely.


b. Go with small-scale sanitation system including fecal sludge management: What needs to be understood is that a population of 2.7 billion people in the world using a small scale or onsite sanitation systems. All kinds of small-scale sanitation systems including septic tanks and pits need to be scheduled for desludging. Fecal Sludge Management (FSM) is a crucial intervention required for safe excreta management. Currently, systematic FSM does not exist in most parts of the world. The very important fact remains that people can finance small-scale sanitation systems on their own if policies and regulatory frameworks exist.
c. Think of innovations and be ready for Reinvented the Toilet: To bring about radical changes in the sector, we need innovations. Technologies and practices that are currently in existence, cannot address all the problems we witness presently. The toilet should not be considered the only solution, and additionally the entire sanitation value chain needs to be emphasized – collection, transport, treatment and reuse. We, as sanitation professionals, need to see how the cost can be recovered and envision sanitation as a real business. Massive amount of effort is currently underway to bring about an entirely new concept of the toilet called “Reinvent the Toilet”. Be ready for it!


Let’s dream for that ideal toilet that kills 100% pathogens, uses minimum water, and produces resources such as energy, clean water, and fertilizers.
Happy World Toilet Day!


– By: Dr. Roshan Raj Shrestha, Senior Program Officer,  Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation