Monday, August 24, 2009

The Big Necessity

We in the Westernized world tend to take our toilets for granted, because we want to take them for granted. We flush our "waste" away and never give it a second thought, never considering what life was like before indoor plumbing and sewage treatment plants, never considering what life is like for the 2.6 billion people who don't have access to any sanitation at all - no toilet, no latrine, no outhouse, no nothing. While clean water gets plenty of attention, the main source of waterborne disease gets none. It just ain't sexy. Umm, to say the least.


Rose George approaches this topic by alternating humor and seriousness, and sometimes sorrow. She's not afraid to get her feet wet, criss-crossing the globe and diving into dark spots for her research. She visits the extensive sewer systems of New York City and London, meets with weary sanitation activists around the world, tours the high-tech toilet manufacturing plants of Japan, and reports on the indignities of the Untouchables of India, who are still being forced to collect human waste with their bare hands.

The Big Necessity weaves a fascinating story of sanitation, a story many people don't know that they need to hear. Sanitation is a pillar of modern society, the foundation for public health, the savior of millions of lives. In developing countries, diarrhea (virtually always caused by lack of sanitation) is the largest hurdle a child needs to overcome to make it to their fifth birthday. 2.2 million people, usually children, die of diarrhea - more than AIDS, TB or malaria. But diarrhea is only the beginning. There's also cholera and cryptosporidium, and numerous other "waterborne" diseases (meaning water contaminated by sewage) which kill as well.

In the first chapter, "In the Sewers," we find that even though citizens of the Western world are saved from these deadly diseases by our sewer infrastructures and basic hygiene measures, our sewage systems are crumbling and filled to capacity. Our sewers are often easily overwhelmed by a few inches of rain, when they begin to discharge the raw sewage into the nearest handy body of water. In New York City alone, the weekly toll of polluted discharge is 500 million gallons. Per week. So even with our thousands of miles of sewer lines and our millions of toilets, we still haven't figured out what to do with sewage.

The most disturbing part of this chapter was not the tour of the sewers but the fact that the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the United States wastewater infrastructure a D-minus in 2005, and the EPA estimates that 50 percent of our nations sewer pipes will be in poor or very poor condition by 2020. Something to think about next time you're on the pot.

The next chapter, the Robo-Toilet revolution, was frankly hilarious. Apparently the Japanese have the most advanced toilets in the world - heated seats, programmable to your specific habits, computerized, with retractable bidet nozzles. This chapter alone is worth reading the book. I giggled my way through the discussion of how persistent Japanese engineers isolated the precise location of the average anus (necessary in order to know where to position the bidet water nozzle). In fact, I'm giggling right now.

"2.6 Billion" dives into the plight of the under-developed world, a plight made all the problematic because it can't be mentioned in polite society. But for aid workers, public health organizations and governments working to decrease mortality, sanitation is a key project. Trying to provide clean water without stopping a major source of pollution and disease is a losing proposition.

Lack of proper sanitation is even a serious impediment to education - many schools have nonexistant, limited, or unclean facilities - meaning that children simply have to leave the school for the nearest bar just to use the bathroom, and many girls stop going to school once they reach the age of menstruation. I'll leave the descriptions for those of you who read the book. They are an eye-opener.

The chapter on biogas units in China may be of interest to you if you are looking for a "clean" renewable energy source. The Chinese have really been the leaders in this technology, which uses the gas products from human and livestock waste to power lights and cooking fires. Hey, turns out it's useful for something - maybe it's not just "waste" to be sent away as fast as possible, but a source of energy. If I had a pig or two, I might be in the market for one of those units.

So far, this book has been alternately fascinating, disturbing, infuriating, and full of adventures and interesting statistics. If you haven't started reading The Big Necessity yet, I hope the information above will spur you to action, because one of the main achievements of this book is to make the unmentionable, mentionable. We are not going to solve the sustainability issues of our world by turning up our noses at the most basic aspects of human life, so let's just open our eyes and take a look at the facts. Stay tuned for the second half....


Wendy said...

Well, there ya go! I've been telling my husband we need a methane digester (biogas unit) for a while now. I'm pretty certain there's a way to convert our standard, suburban septic tank into a digester, but I'm not an engineer ... he is.

Sounds like a great book :).

Sewertoons said...

It was a great book! I could barely put it down, but then I am sewer obsessed.

Another great "sewage-ish" book has been released recently called Small Town, Perfect Storm by Barbara Wolcott. Wikipedia Los Osos, California for the quick overview of a town that has managed to resist putting in a sewer for over 30 years, thereby ruining one of the two aquifers it sits on top of and drinks from.

Yes, I have lived in this place for 4 years and have supported getting one ASAP. Never in my life thought I'd have to crusade for a sewer.

Anonymous said...

Wanna make some killer compost? - poop in a bucket and cover it with sawdust - put the butt bomb in the center of your pile each week and help nature do its thing - try the Humanure Handbook and a luggable loo!

Chile said...

I second the recommendation of composting. If you don't want to go the route of an outside humanure compost pile (which is, technically, illegal), you can get a self-contained composting toilet. They work great, even with heavy use.

Too funny - my word to verify is "twaste". Short, perhaps, for toilet waste? ;-)

Sewertoons said...

in San Luis Obispo County, CA, you have to get a permit to install one of those, or for a urine sequestering installation, too - so check with your local public works department before buying anything.

Anonymous said...

Just got one of those automatic link ups to the piece I posted below...
As I write this, I'm doing my initial "preheat" of my Sun Oven. The Pres. of the company was here a couple of weeks ago and we had a great time as he described the oven and how it's been set up around the globe.

After I clean it post pre-heat,I will start cooking..

So glad I found you by "automation." Will bookmark your site. I have another site where I focus on "living" so I'll be posting more about my oven and cooking there...

Gavin said...

Frau, Yes, I agree that when sewers were installed in western nations, mortality rates dropped dramatically. Septic tanks just don't cut the mustard anymore and as one reader pointed out, contaminates the water table.

We have water shortage here in Victoria, Australia, so flushing the loo causes us another problem. The waste of a precious resource every time we partake in this necessity. It has now been mandated that new homes must have dual flush cisterns (3/6 litre)however it is too little too late. We have also started to recycle much of the sewage waste water and have begun to plumb newer suburbs with potable water and recycled water systems. But once again, too little too late.

Call me strange, but I pee in my compost bins to add nitrogen every chance I get, and am very soon going to install a composting toilet. This will solve our water problem, but our sewage one as well and add valuable nutrients to the garden soil. It is just a shame that composting loo's cost so much then everone would be able to have one.

The methane digesters are another fantastic idea to process our "twaste". The gas can be used to cook and heat (after Peak Oil really kicks in) and the sludge is turned into compost for the garden. We all underestermate our own waste, which has so many uses.

keep up the great blog. It is a pleasure to visit.


Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Thanks to everyone for your ideas -am looking forward to covering the rest of the book -