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Stop being a neo-liberal and embrace the sanitation system

Published on: 13/11/2019

Sanitation is chronically underfunded, perhaps that’s because we’re not asking for money in the right way or from the right source.

Loo with a view, Trawden, Lancashire, UK.  Photo: Flickr/David Nutter.

Loo with a view, Trawden, Lancashire, UK. Photo: Flickr/David Nutter. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A few years ago, when I was moving house from Dublin to The Hague, I fell into conversation with the owner of the company that was shipping my furniture. A late-middle aged man from the far west of Ireland, raised in a rural home, he’d only learned to speak English in his teens. When I told him what I did for work, instead of moving quickly onto the weather (which is what normally happens), he told me this story:

When I was growing up in the 1950s many rural houses didn’t have modern indoor toilets. During one election, a politician came canvassing and talked to a neighbour, an old woman living in such a household. He asked for her vote, citing the work the government was doing to provide people like her with modern sanitation. To which she replied, “I’d rather die with the tracks of the bucket on me arse, than vote for you free-state bastards*”.

I honestly can’t vouch for the story, and it mainly stuck for the old woman’s pithy put-down to a smarmy politician. But on World Toilet Day it seemed apt to share, and because it illustrates a few (what should be) universal truths about sanitation, and because it reminds us that even in wealthy countries (which Ireland wasn’t in the 1950s), indoor flush toilets are a relatively recent innovation, particularly in rural areas. Perhaps most importantly though, it shows that politics and toilets have, and always, will be closely related; and that getting toilets to everyone requires government push.

No doubt this World Toilet Day there’ll be the usual appeals from the ‘sanitation community’ to give a thought to toilets, along with laments about why it remains so ignored compared to water. 

To the first of these I say – yes, let’s give a thought to sanitation – and not just on World Toilet Day - because it’s fundamental human right and it’s just outrageous and ridiculous that people have to live surrounded by their own and their neighbours filth in 2019. 

To the second – and to stir the pot a bit – I say because of the sanitation community is putting out the wrong messages.  Not about sanitation being important – we all agree. But on how to think about providing sanitation to people.  And because this is a blog and will be put up with another thousand blogs that no-one will read, I’m going to skip the part where I provide a carefully built and nuanced argument and skip to my recommendation. 

So, for World Toilet Day, three stops and a go to my sanitation friends and colleagues:

  • Stop saying it’s all about behaviour, and stop pretending that behaviour change is easy or permanent:  Of course behaviour is part of the mix, of course demand is needed. But the idea that once triggered everyone will bootstrap themselves to indoor plumbing is ridiculous, and demonstrably false. Delivering and then maintaining behaviour change means investing in pervasive messaging on public health: in schools; in public spaces; in places of worship.
  • Stop saying that sanitation is a ‘household issue’: It’s not, it’s a public health issue. You can have the cleanest shiniest toilet in the world, but if you flush it into the nearest drain and live surrounded by an environment pervaded by shit – in the air you breathe, the streets you tread and the food you eat – it won’t make a blind bit of difference to your health or the health of the community.
  • Stop saying that the private sector will provide: This is neoliberal bullshit (its World Toilet Day – I’m permitted!). Along with the ‘it’s all about individual behaviour and households’ piece, it is a toxic message drawn directly from the same evidence free ‘who needs a functional government anyway?’ book. I love the private sector, some of my best friends are the private sector!  The private sector has many critical roles to play in sanitation. But the private sector on its own will never provide sustainable sanitation services to everyone.
  • Go, and embrace sanitation as a public service.  After three stops – the go! The private sector will always make toilets, they’ll always run septic trucks, and they’ll often make and run treatment works. But policy, regulation, subsidy are the oil in the machine required to make the whole thing work. And government leadership and money, the motive energy that gets and keeps it rolling. So let’s demand both – leadership and – lots of money and spend it on the sanitation system: on behaviour change campaigns that aren’t one-off – but always on; on subsidies for improved toilets for the poorest and to make it financially interesting for the septic truck owner to drive to the treatment station rather than dump it in the stream; on creating enabling policy and regulation; and, on the people to enforce delivery of the policy and enforce the regulation. 

Why does water get more money than sanitation? Because it has an answer to the politician’s question ‘what can you spend it on?’.  And one that doesn’t involve wittering about not providing infrastructure or subsidy but instead doing behaviour change campaigns! Politicians like spending money, and they like opening things, and they like providing services that they can then parlay into votes. And yes, when I’m writing about water, I’m often writing that we need to encourage government to spend its money more wisely and not just on infrastructure. But at least the expectation of spending is there, and the water sector doesn’t keep telling government that it doesn’t actually need money because ‘it’s a household issue’.

Happy World Toilet Day – and here’s to getting lots of money spent on sustainable sanitation services!

* Note: If the term 'free-state bastard' is impenetrable and you feel like reading more – see this Wikipedia article on Ireland's civil war and its long political legacy

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