Monday, 14 October 2013

Ms. G.

I think it’s safe to say that anyone who has ever read or heard anything about international development differences, poverty or general misery around the world or in any specific place, will have noticed that sanitation problems (also known as bad toilets) are some of the biggest ones.

Travelling for instance from Finland, it is not even necessary to go outside of Europe to feel that the toilets in hotels, restaurant, homes etc. aren’t always the standard we’re used to. Those who have travelled to more far-away places often have gruelling horror stories of the sanitation services they have stood up with.

Bad that’s generally just a question of comfort, the ability to withstand bad smells or short-term, if of course unpleasant and time-wasting, sickness. What is more important is that a really big portion of the planet’s human dwellers live their day-to-day lives in that reality. No one will ever know exact numbers, but estimates usually but that population at about 2 billion people. In short, lots of people die and suffer, everyone loses money and the world is far from a perfect place because of, among other things, this.

The stuff we, as animals and part of various ecosystems, produce and wish to never see again, as we all know, is dangerous or at the very least disgusting. This is why we get rid of it. The thing is that it’s dangerous for or environment as well. Whatever poisons or germs are in that stuff (can we now just start calling it poo?) won’t disappear by flushing it away. So it would be good to either render it safe before dumping it in nature or not dump it at all. This is not done well enough almost anywhere in the world. Many will beg to differ, but human waste seems to be polluting places all around the world.

Easy right? Do what we do! Spend lots of money (They call it investment), build pipes and treatment plants, educate and hire people (That’s called labour, later also human capital) and get things in order. Maybe so, maybe no.

As years have passed, one global phenomenon has been making itself known on the background of everything else. We’re running out of water. At least the fresh, usable kind. Some call it the new oil, referring more to the violent and big conflicts over it than to the huge amounts of money that can be made on it (even though the last one is also, unquestionably and sadly, true). Why would we use that water to get rid of poo? Actually, why do we use it for that.

It’s probably enough to state that the flush toilets we are used to in the global north (called in scientific talks ‘Western conventional sanitation solutions’ and more critically ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ -systems) are not sustainable, least of all on the global scale. We would most probably quickly use up most good water, in the process polluting the environment with pathogens and all the industrial stuff we eat, thereby making lives even harder. The other alternative is to use waste handling systems that are way too expensive to be rolled out everywhere in the world. That’s too bad because they’re very nice and easy, aren’t they?

Still, poo and piss have value. Introducing ecological sanitation (Disclaimer: this is no new idea, and I’m not presenting it as some revolutionary magic bullet). Consider the cycle of nutrients, the stuff we run on. They’re in the soil. They move to plants as these are planted and grow. We, or the animals we later eat, eat the plants and the nutrients enter us. Some stay in our body, but some escape (because we're a surprisingly inefficient design) as, you guessed it, poo and pee. We flush that away, or in the less developed world most often hide it, and lose the nutrients. That cycle can be closed. Very simply explained: store poo and pee (the nutrients), handle it properly and use it as a fertilizer (put the nutrients back) we’re you grow the food. This has been a customary practice in many places in Asia for millennia, but has elsewhere been treated as new idea:  take nutrients up, put nutrients back.

An added aspect is that farmers use a lot of money on industrial fertilizers to improve yields while draining the soil of nutrients. This is classical example of short term gains gotten at the cost of serious long-term problems: solutions made by poor people because of necessity, not lack of understanding. In poor countries, such as here, the sums spent on fertilizers can constitute very substantial parts of farmers’ incomes. As Sarah Jewitt put it in her article, Poo gurus? Researching the threats and opportunities presented by human waste, in many contexts shit could be equal to money. Non-farmers can of course always sell what they’ve “produced”.

What Me and Ms. G are trying to find out, in general, is whether there’s any potential to introducing ecological sanitation (eco-san) as a wider practice in the Taita Hills and what kinds of solutions would be preferred (there are lots of examples, anyone can do their own research). The focus is on what the local inhabitants as the potential end users of eco-san think about all this. It’ll be fun to see how people react to discussing pee and poo with a complete stranger... More will follow!

PS. By the way, thinking about the conflicts that have plagued many oil-rich countries and why this has happened... Where does that leave water-rich countries such as Finland in the future?

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