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....