Cyclone Pam and the taboo of poo

Cosmos Magazine


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Vanuatu. To most people it is synonymous with tropical beaches, luscious palm trees and cocktails with little umbrellas in them.

To me, Vanuatu is a place where families welcome me into their homes and talk to me about that most taboo of topics – their toilet habits. I am a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) engineer, and my current work sees me partnering with communities on the outskirts of towns in the South Pacific. Two of these communities are in Vanuatu.

I do not yet know how they have fared in the wake of Cyclone Pam. But we all know that in the period immediately following there are three absolute necessities: water, food and shelter. And if we have at least the first two, we are going to need to answer the call of nature sooner or later. The sad fact is that if hotels in Port Vila couldn’t withstand Pam, then toilets in the settlements and villages throughout the country may not exist anymore.

I was scheduled to visit the communities I work with next week, but at this stage I know that I would just be in the way. I am what you might think of as a ‘General Practitioner’ of WASH – I work with communities and enabling actors such as governments, NGOs, water utilities to improve WASH in the long term. What Vanuatu needs right now are my “emergency department” colleagues – the WASH crews who are no doubt filtering water and digging pit toilets as I type.

The importance of rapidly addressing the lack of toilets cannot be understated. Improper human waste management can be a major cause of illness, and sometimes death, in the weeks following a disaster. 

You may not realise it, but toilets save lives.

In fact, readers of the British Medical Journal voted the “sanitary revolution” the greatest medical milestone since 1840. So make sure you hug your toilet sometime (not just after a big night on the town) for the fact that it has extended your life by decades.

As Vanuatu rebuilds, so will its toilets. Interestingly, an overwhelming majority of people living in the communities where I work aspire to a flush toilet – even though most of them have no running water, and during the dry season, minimal rainwater.

Some spend hours a day carrying water from the nearby river, only to use large quantities of that to flush their toilet.

As an engineer, I can’t help but think that such toilets are not the most technically appropriate for such situations – there are several dry options that could save time and water – some even provide excellent fertiliser which could be easily utilised on the crops grown around Port Vila.

But, as Leonard of Big Bang Theory joked, sometimes engineering theory only works on “spherical chickens in a vacuum”.

In reality, people use their toilets multiple times a day – we all have a very intimate bond with our loo. And when we’re investing that much time into a relationship, we like to choose the right partner. To many of the communities I work with, the extra effort required to haul water is balanced out by having a “gudfala” (good fella) toilet – because after all, that is what people in town and overseas have, so it must be the best. You may not think of your toilet as a status symbol, but that’s all a matter of who you speak to.

In the aftermath of Pam, it is essential to ensure that sanitation coverage is restored as soon as possible to these at risk communities, but it’s also important that we think longer term. Are there affordable toilet designs that could withstand a Category 5 cyclone? And are they what people actually want?

Dr Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow at the Monash University & International Water Centre. She has more to say on the subject of toilets in the video below, a co-production between SBS World News and The Conversation.

You can follow her on Twitter @Dani_Barrington

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