One of the first things other academics ask me is “why are you interested in toilets?” For the vast majority of people, the biological function of waste excretion is an after thought, an activity that nobody wants to talk about, and often times, the mere thought of talking about shit grosses them out. I am, however, fascinated by the human and political dimensions of human waste, and the challenges that solving the global sanitation crisis presents. More than excrement itself, I’m interested in a holistic view of sanitation (waste disposal, transportation, removal, treatment and reuse). This interest stems primarily from my training as a chemical engineer, my work experience as a sanitation engineer and researcher, and my interest from my doctoral studies in understanding the politics of policy intervention.
Contrary to what one might thing, toilets are political. Owning a toilet will become a necessary prerequisite for politicians to run for office in Gujarat, India. The new Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, has made ending open defecation and increasing access to toilets one of his campaign promises and a crucial component of his political and public policy agenda. Modi’s “toilets first, temples later” has been seen as a strong statement in favor of increasing toilet and latrine access in India.
Open defecation is a widespread activity that isn’t only confined to India, Pakistan, Indonesia or some West African countries like Ghana. It happens in less-privileged sub-national regions of developed and emerging nations too (although data is so sparse that some countries like the US and Canada are mapped as having zero contribution to open defecation, which doesn’t sound like it is actually correct). India is one of the countries where most efforts are being funneled because it tops the list of countries with the highest rate of open defecation at 58% of contribution to the world’s population engaging in this activity. But it’s certainly not the only country where we should be directing our efforts. Sub-national analyses that provide robust assessments of rates of open defecation in developed nations are also sorely lacking.
I’ve previously written about the politics of wastewater governance because I am, after all, a political scientist (and a human geographer) and as I mentioned above, toilets, and access to sanitation all have political dimensions. In my own work I have emphasized that even if we have the technical capabilities to increase access to toilets, latrines and sanitation infrastructure, often times we see lack of progress because institutional, cultural, behavioral and societal barriers have been erected through time. I have shown that the behavioral determinants of sanitation governance are complex and multicausal, and also have multiple effects. Not having a toilet in your own home or easily accessible can lead to violence and physical/sexual assault.
Lack of toilets affects women disproportionately and leaves them vulnerable to physical violence, as it has happened in India. Earlier this year I wrote about the complex linkages between menstrual hygiene management, access to toilets and violence against women. One wouldn’t even think that not having a toilet can be deleterious to your own physical well being beyond enteric diseases, and that it could leave people (particularly women and young girls) in vulnerable positions.
While some scholars have found that in a small region of northern India cultural practices have made citizens uninterested in relieving themselves in a toilet or latrine, despite having access, these findings cannot be generalized globally. We need a multidisciplinary, multicausal, holistic approach to ending open defecation and increasing sanitation access.
For this approach to work, we need a set of policy strategies that aren’t solely focused (individually) on cultural practices, or access to latrines, or poverty alleviation. All these factors must be tackled simultaneously.
World Toilet Day takes place on November 19th. This year finally the United Nations named World Toilet Day an official UN day, although for all the noise it has been making, we are WAY behind the target for the Millennium Development Goals. If we really want to end open defecation by 2025, as the UN indicates, we are definitely going to need a better approach. In my own research, I have found that institution- and routine-based strategies help increase access to sanitation. I have also argued that access to toilets can be used as a political manipulation strategy. We should be interested in the global politics of sanitation because the crisis is far-reaching and widespread.
On November 19th, I encourage you to reflect on the fact that over 1 billion people defecate in the open because they lack the dignity of a toilet, and that 2.6 billion people don’t have access to improved water and sanitation sources.
Think about it. It IS political. Because we can’t wait to solve the global sanitation crisis.