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It Was Supposed to Be a Day Not Talking about Poop

September 26, 2013

It is my first trip to India and after a week packed with meetings in Delhi discussing how to safely handle human waste I was ready for the weekend. We were headed to Southern India to visit an impressive project working on self-cleaning public toilets. Then, we were off for a boat ride in the famous “backwaters” of Kerala state to relax, view the beautiful surroundings and, in theory, not talk about poop.

It was really hot but on our beautiful boat with the ornate wooden awning over us, the temperature was perfect for a river cruise. The palm trees were full of coconuts and bowed with their weight in an arc over the calm water. As we made our way upriver, our guide told us that this was the cleanest river of the 44 in Kerela because the shores aren't built up with resorts or houses like the others.

We were surprised by how little trash was in the water although we did count seven wayward shoes floating by. As we made our way upstream, we exchanged waves with the numerous women washing rainbows of saris in the brown water. The further we got away from the road we came across more and more people bathing and fishing along the shore. More waving. We rounded a bend and not only was the entire family in for a dip, the family’s cow was getting a thorough scrub down.  Just a short distance beyond the family with the cow, the unmistakable and rancid smell of sewage wafted over us. We couldn’t tell where it was coming from but the odor was all-consuming. 

Our guide turned the boat around and going with the current we glided quickly past the waving groups in descending order - family, cow, bathers, fishermen, washers – all downstream from the sewage. This time we happened to pass by just as one man brought water to his mouth in a cupped hand to take large drinks of water to beat the heat. Just beyond him, an older, mustached man was happily brushing his teeth in the quiet bay, the toothpaste creating a frothy ring around his mouth. He paused from his brushing to wave and give us a toothy smile.

I was horrified. We had spent the previous week talking about the number of diseases transmitted through human waste and how current processing systems aren’t working – especially for the poor. In the conference rooms in Delhi, it had seemed unthinkable that anyone would stand for systems that are literally sickening and killing hundreds of thousands of kids each year in India.  Coming out of the meetings, I felt enraged but motivated to act with urgency to get something done to stop these preventable deaths. But here in the backwaters, it was playing out right in front of us and they complexity of sanitation issues because very clear. There are many layers that must be addressed (toilets, education about safe drinking water, protection of the environment, etc.) when working on sanitation issues and today's trip illustrated why progress in the space has been slow.

As we watched this particular sanitation story unfold I realized the importance of what we are trying to achieve with a reinvented toilet. One that doesn't need to be attached to sewer lines which, in places like India, almost always end up dumping into rivers just like the one we were on. Improved sanitation options would mean that waste would be safely disposed of and could be used for productive things like fertilizer or biogas for stoves.

Admittedly, a new and improved toilet won’t address all of the issues surrounding sanitation and safe water in India but it will be a fantastic first step in ensuring that human waste isn’t pumped directly into rivers like this one. But, more importantly, it will make giant strides in helping to reduce the number of kids who are sickened every day from bathing in and drinking water from sources like the backwaters in Kerala. 

Want to learn more about Reinventing the Toilet? Watch this video.

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