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Those of us who don’t think about shit for a living probably don’t realise that there is nothing inherently crucial about water when it comes to toilets. We use it to move our waste around- I admit that it is pretty effective for that. But, in most developed countries, we use water that has been treated to drinking water standards for this. Think about how insane that is- even when most of Australia was suffering drought we were wasting high quality, expensive-to-treat water! Where is the respect for a resource we need in order to survive?

Back in the day we had outhouses and sewage carts (the remnants of which are still seen in the toilet lanes behind houses in older Aussie suburbs), and until the world began mining for inorganic fertilisers in the form of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK), many countries used human waste as manure (this is still fairly common practice in China). When it was realised that water was an excellent mode of transporting human waste away from the source (your bum) to a place where it could be safely disposed of (generally far from human reach), we adopted this model in Australia and the flush toilet became a part of every household.

From a public health standpoint, this was a major breakthrough- we had the money, and the technology, to build large sewerage networks so that households could flush and then never see their waste again. The dream!

And this is often where a conundrum occurs- developing countries look to developed countries for guidance. What they see is that if they want to be ‘modern’ and have pride in their bathrooms, they must have a press (cistern) or at least pour (bucket) flush toilet- and anything less can be seen as an insult to them.

So, you may ask, why don’t NGOs and governments just encourage everyone to build a toilet like ours and be done with it? By installing flush toilets and centralised systems in developed countries we have minimised the public health impacts of human waste (think of faeco-oral transmitted diseases like cholera and typhoid- things I assume most Aussies have never had to deal with!). But the cost is that we’re polluting a valuable resource (water) and wasting another (nutrients). We get away with it because, to some extent at least, we can afford the infrastructure, the water, and the inorganic fertilisers for our food crops. But in some developing communities, these luxuries are not present. Let’s address them one by one:

.     Infrastructure: sewerage networks cost a massive amount to build and maintain. A cheaper option often employed in developing communities is to build a ‘septic tank’ out of a -gallon drum, and let the wastewater soak into the ground- which could mean contaminating your drinking water source, or causing excess wastewater to pool throughout the community during flood events (leading to disease). Also, perhaps even more importantly, centralised sewerage systems require proper governance to ensure they work correctly.

.     Water: a lot of developing communities suffer even more severe water scarcity than Australia. If you have barely enough water to drink, but your pride relies on a flush toilet, where does that leave you?

.     Nutrients: If you don’t have a proper sewerage system, using a flush toilet means you have large amounts of nutrient-rich water entering the environment near your household, potentially causing algal blooms and fish kills. Also, if you are paying for NPK fertilisers, you are literally flushing an excellent source of nutrients down the toilet.

Composting toilet in rural Fiji. Photo: Dani Barrington

Dani Barrington

Pour flush toilet in peri-urban Solomon Islands. Photo: Dani Barrington

Teaching local masons to build a toilet in rural Nepal. Photo: Dani Barrington

When working with communities, we always want them to determine what is best for their context. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of communities aspire to a ‘Western’ toilet, even if they realise that they don’t have enough water for flushing, they’re harming their surrounding environment, or that harnessing the nutrients could save money for their family. Such is the pressure of ‘keeping up with the Jones’.

And when I’m mentally bashing my head against a wall, I have to ask myself:

Are we doing it ‘right’?

Perhaps as a developed nation it is time we stepped up and examined our current wastewater models- and why they contain water at all.

P.S. If the thought of using human waste (‘humanure’) on food crops makes you squirm, you should know that in Australia farmers purchase the solids from wastewater plants to use as fertiliser. So as much public backlash as there is surrounding recycling toilet water, you may have been eating vegetables grown in what has actually been removed from that water- to make it suitable for drinking- for years. It does makes you think about how logical some of our arguments about recycled water really are.

Dani is a Research Fellow at Monash University, where she specialises in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in developing communities. She is also a long-time EWB volunteer, including a nine-month placement in Nepal and a current position as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Humanitarian Engineering. You can keep up to date with her latest rants about toilets by following her on Twitter: dani_barrington.

Author’s note: Many thanks to Professor Jamie Bartram for helping me frame this piece.