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How Do You Get People To Use Toilets In Places Where They Don’t Already?

The problem requires more than just dropping toilets into areas that lack them–because a toilet no one uses sort of defeats the purpose.

How Do You Get People To Use Toilets In Places Where They Don’t Already?
[Top Photo: MarcNim via Shutterstock]

One billion people in the world lack access to a toilet–a state of affairs that is in large part responsible for the 1.5 million people who die each year from sanitation-related diseases. But fixing the problem requires more than just dropping toilets into areas that lack them.

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That was one of the big takeaways from a panel on global health and sanitation at this year’s SOCAP conference in San Francisco.

Size Matters

One big consideration for out-of-country NGOs and donors to consider: Toilets need to be appropriate for the local environment. “If you’re working in urban environments, the solution needs to be small,” says Becky Auerbach of Sanergy, which runs a network of affordable sanitation centers in Kenya’s urban slums.”You have to be able to stick it into narrow alleyways. Since it’s used multiple times a day, you have to think about how to remove that waste quickly–to provide consistent service to remove the waste.”

Flickr user Jim Bahn

In Sanergy’s case, locals buy and operate its sanitation facilities, and the organization provides access to daily waste collectors who remove filled waste cartridges, remove them (by truck, wheelbarrow, or handcart), and replace them with fresh ones. Sanergy sells the toilets at cost, and makes its money with sales of byproducts, like organic fertilizer.

Keep Cultural Context In Mind

“The burden falls on the organizations to really make it convenient for people to want to use the toilet,” says Anoop Jain, executive director of Humanure Power. The organization installs blocks of community toilets in India (starting in Sukhpur, located in the state of Bihar) convert waste into energy, and in turn charge batteries that are rented out to villagers. When it began building toilets in rural india, it had to make sure that separate entrances for men and women were available, adhering to the region’s gender norms.

Then, an unforeseen cultural miscommunication came up: The first attempt to open up the Humanure toilets to the community was aborted because local leaders were offended that Humanure didn’t consult them immediately prior to the opening. Humanure had to do a second opening a few days later. “You have to understand the community,” says Jain.

Remember that most people want to use toilets

A recent article in the [i]Economist[/i] suggested that many people in India “still show a preference for going in the open–even if they have latrines at home.” The article cited a recent Princeton study: in Indian households with working latrines, over 40% of respondents said that at least one family member opted for open defecation instead.

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Flickr user Thomas

This, says Jain, misses the point. “A lot of people might have toilets in their homes, but they work five to ten kilometers away. For a manual laborer who has no toilet where he works, what do you expect this person to do? It’s not just about availability of toilets at home.”

Sanergy is constantly thinking about ways to make toilets more attractive to locals. “The toilet might be close, but it’s uphill, it’s rainy season, it’s muddy and you don’t want to go there,” says Auerbach. “Do you think about providing an additional cleaning service? Do you put flags on the toilet so you can see it from far away? Is it just a case of having more toilets? Community buy-in is so important.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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