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For some, having a toilet near one’s bedroom seems like a basic necessity, the question being not “if” but “how many” toilets are in the house. For many, however, having a toilet in one’s home is a distant aspiration. The questions here are about access, cost and safety. Since 2001, on November 19th, World Toilet Day has turned what has often been perceived across cultures as a profoundly private if not taboo subject (shit), and the prosaic, non-object that was once exhibited as a Dadaist provocation by artist Marcel Duchamp (the toilet), into a crucial public awareness raising campaign. UNICEF and an increasing constellation of actors across the development and private sector are celebrating and encouraging the world to ‘give a shit about’ sanitation, and the toilet in particular has become one of the focal points for addressing water and sanitation poverty, one of the key Sustainable Development Goals associated with public health challenges of the 21st century.
Undeniably, sanitation merits heightened global attention. Poor water quality and sanitation are leading causes of mortality and disease in developing countries with 2.6 billion people “lacking adequate sanitation” according to the World Health Organisation. But it seems important to reflect for a moment on the implications of the ‘toilet’ becoming the poster child of sanitation challenges. As it becomes the emblem of the unplanned urbanization crisis and a potential humanitarian, public health, educational, urban planning, or business opportunity, to what extent is the toilet positioned both as a kind of humanitarian object and a luxury consumer good?
Humanitarian objects tend to provide a technical fix to a development problem while consumer goods tap into perceived needs and aspirations. As the toilet embodies both, the seemingly most basic and private bodily act is rendered a public and political issue, but also an assumed matter of private and individual behavior, choice, and status. Therefore, the toilet can be regarded as simultaneously an individual human right and an aspirational good. This focus on the individual person and the individual household implies that addressing the sanitation problem comes down to the lack of individual toilets. Yet the in-home toilet remains a distant reality for many low-income (especially urban) residents in the global South particularly, to the extent that the production of cleanliness and privacy associated with sanitation is often less a matter concerning the household unit, as it is a matter of shared commons. In the context of shared facilities, the ‘public’ (rather than in-home or private) toilet goes beyond design, hardware installation, infrastructure, and coverage. Toilets reveal the multifarious considerations related to the building, maintenance, management, access, and financing of shared ablution blocks, along with the often less documented but crucial everyday social life involved in making a shared resource work for and serve the needs of multiple end-users. Let us consider what the toilet (or lack thereof) reveals across three different urban sites.
In one of Nairobi’s oldest and largest informal settlements, a local community organiser once explained, “In Mathare there are very few things that can be said to serve the public good. There is no community hall; there is no secondary school. But one of the things that you could say, it is ours, it belongs to us, is the public toilet.” Against the backdrop of rapid and often makeshift urbanisation amongst countless low-income urban citizens, toilets and the sanitation commons can be highly politicized, social, and contested spaces, sometimes more so than housing. These shared resources are crucial facilities, and for some politicians and development actors in Nairobi, toilets have even become symbols of ‘good will’ and tangible investment. But despite the fancy plate on the outside wall featuring a date and the name of a sponsor, these humanitarian objects, created as sanitation prestige projects with minimal forethought to sustainable management, are too often left ill-maintained and eventually breaking down physically and socially.
The story of Cape Town, South Africa, reflects a different political direction to the Nairobi case: toilets in informal settlements had not elicited enough attention of external support or public provisioning. In this case, the toilet was neither a humanitarian object nor luxury good, but rather a symbol of urban decay and an absentee state in the forgotten and ignored neighbourhoods of the city. The 2013 ‘poo wars’ became a lever for meaningful protest against the government’s lack of attention towards unplanned neighbourhoods waiting to get adequate infrastructure post-Apartheid. In this context, the embodied ‘politics of shit’ and the non-existent toilet operated as a shaming device directed towards the state.
In contrast to the above examples, in Pune, India, the toilet is not as much a humanitarian object provided by particular sponsors or a matter of contestation towards an absentee state. The toilet is a luxury good and a distant reality for most low-income households’, whose homes are purposefully modular: the 'bedroom' becomes at different points in the day your kitchen, your sitting room, the work station for in-home businesses, the after-school homework study, and the site of assembly for self-help groups discussing their saving scheme. The 'bathing corner' is used for cooking one minute, and washing your feet the next. In this context, the toilet is set apart from the home not only because it is more convenient, but because it is also considered more hygienic to keep your ablutions far away from your dwelling, despite the very real security concern, particularly for countless women and children, when they face a long walk to the nearest toilet after dark.
On World Toilet Day and beyond, we need to appreciate the diverse meanings associated with the toilet as we work towards advancing the Sustainable Development Goals, including improved access to water, sanitation and hygiene. It is clear that for most urban dwellers today, especially in the global South, a private toilet remains a luxury good. At the same time, access to a safe, clean, and reasonably close adequate sanitation facility should be considered an essential right. Within the current reality, however, the key characteristic of the ‘real toilet’ for the majority of urban citizens in rapidly growing cities today is the shared toilet. Therefore, we need to better understand the importance of the collective and social life that surrounds shared sanitation spaces (and water for that matter), from the everyday civilities in the queue to the meaningful ways in which local actors are raising expectations for what might be considered ‘adequate sanitation’ in their own terms, and in their neighbourhood.
Sanitation projects today, ranging from eco-sanitation to micro-franchise models are encouraging and worthy of praise in their own right. Ultimately, however, these interventions rely on communities taking an active role in improving their sanitation options. This might include fostering a collective willingness to pay a private sanitation provider, or resolving the potential disputes that inevitably occur when any group of people share a common good. Ultimately, any sanitation intervention needs to work within the very real urban constraints and pragmatic coping strategies related to compact and modular living to bring about the critical improvements necessary. In this context, the toilet becomes both a humanitarian object and a consumer good, where community economics determine the quotidian, often invisible, labour involved in maintaining these sanitation commons. If we reflect comparatively on some of the various examples of sanitation improvement at work, it seems that the most effective way to ensure improved sanitation is through a combination of minimum “hardware” provision (some form of public toilets), and market mechanisms to enable contextual incentives for a shared sanitation ecosystem (what we might call the social “software”). This is not an easy balance. World Toilet Day continues to put a spotlight on the unmentionable, pushing us all to see, support, but also contextualise the interconnection between a humanitarian imperative AND the aspirational consumer good.
Dr. Tatiana Thieme is an urban ethnographer based in the Department of Geography at University College London. Her research focuses broadly on urban “hustle” economies in precarious urban environments, and includes an interest in the politics of waste and sanitation in the global South.
Tatiana Thieme is also member of Re)sources
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