A non-partisan, neutral perspective supporting diversity in the color of water

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Geographies of Shit

Provocative title, indeed, but not a Rainbow Water Coalition original. Rather, the title of an excellent article in Progress in Human Geography by Sarah Jewitt (see Geographies of shit: Spatial and temporal variations in attitudes towards human waste - doi:10.1177/0309132510394704). As quoted in her article, *we need to put the word shit into people's mouths* to enhance understandings of global sanitation problems - you know, those 2.6 billion lacking access to sanitation. Got my attention, and the attention of many other important water folks examining the WaSH arena like WaterWired.

This paper is important for many reasons, but what I found most interesting was Jewitt's discussion on *the deeply embedded taboos surrounding human waste and the environmental health problems resulting from a lack of effective excrement-management systems* in some of the most populated regions of the world. I found her discussion that some cultures tolerate the handling of shit (faecophilic) whereas other cultures find it *abhorrent* (faecophobic). She describes China and Vietnam as places that are *tolerant* of shit where *honey carts* remain common in unsewered residential areas (I always wondered where that term came from) and human feces are used to fertilize rice fields. Handling of human waste is taboo for many Hindus in India, by contrast; *untouchables* in India's caste system are responsible of disposing of human waste. The *hanging latrines* scene in the movie Slumdog Millionaire provides a good overview of this situation.

Westerners are familiar with the *flush and discharge* approach to dealing with human waste. But few westerners realize that this technology is only about 150 years old, and that the historic approach has been the *drop and store* systems. The outhouse, privy, the *hole in the floor* that I encountered in a public toilet in northern Peru 30 years ago. If only the rest of the world would adopt *our* technology, the water-sanitation nexus would be resolved, no? Jewitt's article indicates this is *unlikely to be affordable or environmentally sustainable* in the global South. The problem? Annual investments in the *flush and discharge* systems amount to US$30 billion. And then there is the issue of water shortages.

And we finally reach the connection to greywater. Jewitt's article reports that each person using a flush and discharge toilet typically flushes 5 liters of feces, 4 to 5,000 liters of urine and 15,000 liters of pure water per year. Add an additional 15,000 to 50,000 liters of greywater per person. The result? *...a very small amount of excrement is allowed to contaminate a huge amount of pure and 'grey' water*

So greywater reuse will reduce the amount of pure water contaminated by feces, that is obvious. What was not so obvious to me was this issue of faecophilia versus faecophobia and how these philosophies apply to when it comes to greywater reuse. Now it is clear to me that much of the FUDing about greywater reuse in Oregon more or less comes down to this personal value system rather than protecting the public.

Based on the increasing body of the literature of greywater reuse, the geography of greywater reuse in India is becoming more widespread, it appears that perhaps *value* systems can change with time and technology.

Jewitt's important article is available online, but should be available in the journal soon. It should be required reading for anyone interested in WaSH initiatives and sanitation issues in disadvantaged countries.

Geography is more than learning the locations of the countries and the capital cities. I am still learning that there is a *geography* of just about everything. 

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