I very much enjoyed a recent BBC4 programme on Toilets: An Unspoken History. But then, rather like the show’s presenter, I probably have “an unhealthy fascination with the world of toilets”.
The programme traced how toilets have evolved over the centuries, from Roman times right up to the development of the flushing toilet we are familiar with.
I learned a few things I didn’t know about, like the origin of the saying ‘grabbing the wrong end of the stick’, and exactly who Thomas Crapper was. I’ve never been to Japan, but my goodness they have some fancy toilets there!
One thing the programme rightly highlighted was the huge injustice that some 2.5 billion people in the world are still without access to safe, effective sanitation. It showed how the challenges of meeting that need are even greater in the fast growing, fact changing urban centres of the developing world.
So, is it just about having a really ‘fancy’ toilet – with sound effects and shooting water jets Japanese style? Or even just what we would consider an ‘ordinary’ toilet? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are looking for the ‘next generation’ of eco-toilet for the developing world, and there was an amazing section in the programme about an prototype being developed in the lab which can turn your poo into electricity! Actually, we know that the challenge is bigger than just getting the technology right, although of course that is important. It’s also about how it’s used, cleaned, emptied, and repaired. That’s what having the right ‘technology’ really means. It’s something we’ve been working on in our projects for example in Bangladesh, Nepal and Kenya.
And what about us in the developed world? In an age when we need to think carefully about how we use precious resources like energy and water, does it really make sense for us all to have toilets which use such enormous quantities of fresh, drinkable, treated water? For me, a really fancy toilet would be one that did the necessary, without being quite so wasteful!