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UCLoo Festival 2013


Remembering the 2013 festival of technologies, ideas and debate about sanitation in London


Archive for the 'Global sanitation' Category

“Honeysuckers” – an elegant name for a system that doesn’t work

By ucesbar, on 6 November 2013

This week’s post is by Philippa Ross, an Engineering student at UCL who is undertaking fieldwork in Africa.

Most people come to Uganda to see rare gorillas, take a safari or visit Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa and the largest tropical lake in the world. But I’m here for a far more exciting reason: to look at toilets. 160 toilets to be exact, and maybe a couple more for good measure!  As part of my EngD research in the Centre for Urban Sustainability and Resilience at UCL, I am in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to study the risk to health posed by poor sanitation systems. I’ll be working in some of the poorest areas in the city, where many people live on less than US $1 per day. It’s not just toilets I am looking at; I’m interested in the whole sanitation system including hygiene, drains, solid waste and pit emptying, among other things.

Narrow streets make access difficult for pit emptying vehicles

Narrow streets make access difficult for pit emptying vehicles

In the UK we just flush and forget when we go to the toilet, but in the slum areas of Kampala people have very small income to build flushing toilets, water for flushing is scarce, and there are no sewer systems to flush into! Most people in the slum areas of Kampala use a pit latrine. But what happens when the pit is full? Space is expensive in these over-crowed areas and people can’t just dig another pit when one gets full – so they must empty the pit. De-sludging trucks (beautifully named honeysuckers!) do exist but they are expensive and cannot access many of the narrow streets in slum areas, so many pits are bucketed empty by hand and the waste is often thrown into the drainage systems – which are open and where children often play. These drains also overflow in heavy rain, spreading highly concentrated faecal matter into the local area – this practice makes me question if it was worth going in the toilet in the first place!

1. Community-made drainage  2.Woman digs drainage channel to avoid water entering her home 3. Drainage system blocked with solid waste

1. Community-made drainage
2.Woman digs drainage channel to avoid water entering her home
3. Drainage system blocked with solid waste

So what’s the big deal? Well, over 2000 children die every day due to diseases caused by poor sanitation – that strikes me as a crisis and it certainly is a chronic disaster, which can be solved simply with good sanitation systems. It is interesting that these issues are very similar to those faced in London in 1840 when cholera was widespread, people collected water from the river or shallow wells and human waste was contained in cesspits which frequently over flowed into the drainage systems – turning the river Thames into a sewer! In 1858 the stench of the Thames was so bad in London that the Houses of Parliament were forced to close and made politicians take notice.  It was gaining political support for the cause that led to the building of the sewer system in London as we know it.

Raised toilets in slum communities in Kampala – these are normally shared between 4 or more families

Raised toilets in slum communities in Kampala – these are normally shared between 4 or more families

Kampala has a population of 1.5 million and it is estimated that 60% live in slum areas, which make my 160 toilets a drop in the ocean. Looking at toilets all day isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, which is exactly the problem for Kampala City Council, responsible for sanitation in the city. They have no idea about the current sanitation situation in the slum areas, and the poor people living in these areas do not have a voice politically and cannot afford to improve their situation.

I am working in two slum areas: Bwaise III and Katwe III. Both areas are located in low-lying marsh areas, where no one else wants to build houses. They experience frequent floods and have a high water table. You can actually see where houses are sinking! The high water table adds an extra problem for building latrines – they have to be raised as a pit would collapse and contaminate the ground water. This makes building a latrine unaffordable for an individual family and therefore often 4 -6 families share latrines or use public latrines. I was surprised about how clean the shared toilets were as they are currently not recognised internationally as improved sanitation but many were in better condition that the household latrines I observed in the slums areas of Maputo, Mozambique (the other location of my research). At night time however, things get difficult if you share or use a public latrine. It is often not safe to go out at night and as a consequence people use ‘flying toilets ‘ – plastic bags or potties that often get emptied into the drains.

1. Workshop participants discuss score sanitation indicators in their area  2. Workshop group photo

1. Workshop participants discuss score sanitation indicators in their area
2. Workshop group photo

I have developed a participatory workshop that aims to collect data about the communities’ sanitation issues. The idea is to develop a link between local government to give poor communities a voice to raise their issues and to collect data which highlights poor sanitation ‘hot spots’ and can form a basis for city-wide sanitation planning. In the workshops, participants score their area based on a number of sanitary related indicators. The workshops have been great fun and the participants have been engaged and insightful. The results are triangulated and validated with results from a household survey (as mentioned earlier, my visit to 160 toilets!) which is a more traditional data gathering technique. The results are yet to be analysed, but the community commented that they thought the workshop would be more accurate as a household survey as the questions are very personal and people are embarrassed to say if they don’t use a latrine or don’t wash their hands. This supports my view that the technical engineering side of sanitation is the easy bit! Sociology, psychology and behaviour changes are the massive challenges.

So all that’s left to say is that after two weeks in Kampala I am also suffering from sanitary-related issues… Let’s just say I am appreciating the good toilet I have at my guest house. Not a good advert for a sanitation engineer!


Drinking the toilet water

By ucesbar, on 15 October 2013

This week we are happy to feature a guest blog from Emma M. Jones, author of Parched City, an account of London’s drinking water published by Zero Books earlier this year (http://www.zero-books.net/books/parched-city):

Equating tap water with toilet water may seem incongruous but in most homes they are indeed one and the same. ‘Tap’ water sounds good to cook with, to brush our teeth with, or even to shower under while taking the odd, if inadvertent, sip. ‘Toilet’ water, as ‘tap’ water soon becomes when it flows into that essential piece of technology, seems fit only to sluice our bodily waste away; once the toilet has bacteriologically degraded the fluid from potable to a health hazard.  Yet, seconds prior to the moment that it encountered the site of our daily defecation, the same water destined for the flush should have been as safe and wholesome as the law dictates to make the drinking grade.

Like the convenors of UCLoo Festival (opening on World Toilet Day, 19th November), I concur on the absurdity of this fact: ‘In London alone, more than 400 million litres of drinking water are flushed down the toilet every day.’ Reader, perhaps you are a pioneering greywater enthusiast, who has rigged dual water systems in your home at great expense. I think I am fairly safe in assuming, though, that the majority of us tend to rely on a sole plumbing system, which serves all our water-related needs. Drinking water is, therefore, for most daily users simply all water. To legally qualify as suitable for ‘domestic purposes’[1] – cooking, drinking, food preparation, washing – our tap water will have been through quite an ordeal.

Metropolitan Water Board’s Department of Water Examination, built 1938, Islington (now private housing).

Metropolitan Water Board’s Department of Water Examination, built 1938, Islington (now private housing).

From raw water’s underground or river source (the latter is more highly treated given its volatile environment), the liquid will first be channeled into a reservoir. Initially, even the decision to let supplies into this storage space may be timed to avoid pollution known to be travelling downstream, facilitated by a well-oiled communication system between the water industry and the Environment Agency. Once captured, the greatest proportion of water’s journey to potable will be made simply by settling for a period of time, which can last for weeks. A leading water scientist suggested to me that this natural process, though facilitated by the artificial space of a man-made lake, makes up 90% of water treatment – simply by adding the essential ingredients of time and space.[2] This elegant truth about the efficacy of the storage factor on producing safe drinking water was established in the first decade of the 20th century by the bacteriologist Alexander Houston, of the Metropolitan Water Board, and continues to be applied to London’s water treatment today.[3]

What has changed since Houston’s day is the sophistication of how water quality is measured, to detect minute traces of pesticides, for instance. Post-reservoir, the remaining 10% of water treatment involves an extensive à la carte menu of engineering and chemical interventions, including: aeration, ammonia, clarification, slow-sand filtration, ozonation, ultra-violet treatment, chlorination, granular activated carbon and reverse osmosis. Expert tasters, and sniffers, are also on hand to perform their duties, as are microbiologists and chemists who check the product, to ensure that what leaves the water treatment facility should be in a state to remain drinkable when it reaches our kitchen taps, and acceptable to us (a key concept).

Walthamstow Reservoirs, Thames Water, London, 2012.

Walthamstow Reservoirs, Thames Water, London, 2012.

Of all the things we use drinking-quality water for, flushing the loo has to be the most wasteful. Would we flush bottled water down the toilet? There is a vast monetary gulf between the drinking water we find in corner-shop fridges and the product from our taps, but both are the same precious freshwater resource that requires intense labour and material resources to produce.  Tap water is not on the free market like bottled water, though in essence it is the same product.

Given the sophisticated engineering infrastructure and scientific expertise that has been honed over two centuries to allow London, other world cities and many nations to produce water at drinking quality standards agreed with the World Health Organization, the UCLoo Festival’s proposals to save this resource for its intended purpose seem very wise to me.

I hope the current systemic stasis in the use of water can be ruffled by this festival’s daring design proposals, and I look forward to joining that queue to spend a penny in a dry-dock loo and giving my tuppence-worth on the experience of toileting without water.

Coppermills Advanced Water Treatment Works, Walthamstow, London, 2012.

Coppermills Advanced Water Treatment Works, Walthamstow, London, 2012.

*Please consider making a small donation to our fundraising drive at http://spacehive.com/ucloofestival2013. We have almost reached our target, but need your help to make sure this important conversation happens!

You can also find more information about the UCLoo Festival, running 19th Nov. – 3rd Dec. at UCL’s Bloomsbury campus, through our Twitter (@UClooFestival) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ucloofestival) accounts.

All photographs author’s own.

[1] The Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2000 No. 3184 (UK: The Stationery Office).

[2] Parched City, Emma M Jones (Hants: Zer0 Books, 2013), page 240.

[3] Ibid, pages 111–16.

Sun, sand and Shigella sonnei: toilets at a desert festival

By ucqnklo, on 11 October 2013

Last year, I got a call asking if I wanted to build infrastructure for a thousand hippies at a festival in the desert [1]. Of course I said yes. I was offered a selection of projects, but the idea of building the least romantic items on a site filled with sparkly-eyed astrologers, plus the many opportunities to play with power tools, appealed to me; so Toilet Lead I became.

The festival [Nowhere: http://www.goingnowhere.org/] is hard to describe. A relative of the Burning Man festival in Nevada, it brings together about a thousand people in the remote Los Monegros region of Spain, to build from nothing a commerce-free, self-reliant community of artists that flowers for a week before being returned to pristine wilderness. All that you need you bring with you; water comes in cubes, food in tins, and waste is taken away with you afterwards. A harsh environment packed with revellers might sound challenging for toilet construction, but, just as armies march on their stomachs, festivals scrape along on their bottoms; which is where I and toilet crew come in.

The site before the festival gets rolling: mostly dust and dramatic scenery.

The site before the festival gets rolling: mostly dust and dramatic scenery.

The sanitary arrangements we have been using up until now are simple and compost-based (they are in need of a redesign; read on for why): basically boxes seated atop deep holes. As they get used, scoops of dust are tipped in, to ensure a balance of solids and liquids suitable for the ‘humanure’ to break down. This covers up faecal matter, hopefully preventing insects from touching down in the waste, and also, happily, smells.

I got together at a carpenter’s workshop in Hackney with our head builder, Monkey; some carpenters who knew what they were doing and a sanitary technician, to design a better, stronger, easier-to-build free-standing toilet cubicle. The bloom-and-bust nature of the festival means that many of our structures are based on the flat-pack, turning sheets of plywood into structures that will withstand the depredations of over-excited festivalgoers. In practical terms, this meant slicing a lot of squares and rectangles with newly-acquired circular saw skills, and jigsawing even more notches to interlock them.

Both myself and Monkey are rock and roll fiends, so there was no name for our toilet model but ‘Elvis’, although naming the various parts of the design did give some difficulty. Key base struts were clearly Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry (though, thinking about it, we did miss the opportunity to call one the ‘stray cat’); the particularly annoying one to cut was dubbed Millie Small, after the helium-pitched, lisping sugar-addict of the period. Finally, we had a working model; now to make 13 more.

Fast forward to July and I took a series of buses out to the nearest town to the festival, arrived a week before the hedonistic hordes and got building. I buttonholed a couple of woodworkers, some people keen to learn about power tools and some skilled in measuring, marking out and obsessive checking. Then my dedicated team and I laboured for a week in the heat and sawdust and whirring of machinery to churn out 13 brand new ply poop palaces. Interposed with duties such as digging trenches to stop storms flooding out sewage – a picture which, once it had been vividly explained, proved quite motivating – and trying to pry the finished items out from under the brushes of the artists enthusiastically decorating them so they could be deployed around the site, we finished this Herculean task and let the incoming sparkleponies at the Augean stables.

Me with the Elvis toilet, designed, built and decorated by myself: with much help from my talented friends.

Me with the Elvis toilet, designed, built and decorated by myself: with much help from my talented friends.

And then, among the acro-balance workshops, storytime sessions and dance-offs, some people started getting diarrhea, vomiting, and other intestinal distress. It spread. In this semiarid region, where water is a precious resource, cooking is done in field kitchens, toilets are rough and ready, and people are in holiday festival mood: there are plenty of opportunities for disease to get around.

Following the event, professional epidemiologists (you get all sorts of specialists at these festivals) studied the outbreak, and found evidence that at least some sickness was caused by Shigella sonnei bacteria. This virulent gastro-intestinal disease can require only 10-100 bacterial cells to spread further, with cells being shed by infected parties for up to 4 weeks afterwards. Together, this meant that despite copious amounts of sanitizing spray, regular bleach spray-downs, and the skilled attentions of the medical staff on site, many people were ill during and after the festival.

It’s likely that there were a number of causes of sickness on site. However, poorly washed hands and insects were very likely carriers of infected cells to new victims. Yes, that’s infected cells shed from someone else’s intestinal lining into diarrhea, and then getting in people’s mouths. While faecal-oral transmitted disease is officially gross, everyone did recover and was eventually OK.

We were relatively rich, privileged Bohemians living temporarily low-tech with hand-crafted compost toilets, and we learnt the hard way that sanitation is crucial. When things went wrong, we tried our best attempts to contain it, to provide copious bottles of sanitizer, to isolate sufferers, to block up every chink a fly could get through; but we still couldn’t stop it. We were lucky with the excellent Cruz Roja on site, and the healthcare in our home countries. We were lucky that we were already healthy, well-nourished, and had the clean water we needed while recovering.

Many people aren’t so lucky: they build for themselves and their communities and support themselves in the way we play at doing, but they don’t have an established sewer system to come home to, or gallons of potable water to throw down it.

We are treating this sickness outbreak as the close call it is, and looking at ways we can step up our sanitation. We need a system people can use hygienically, no matter how much they have enjoyed themselves recently; that insects cannot enter and spread infection from; that can tolerate the spectacular storms; and that can be removed and allow the environment to gracefully return to how it was before we came out. That’s for our short-term event.

The world needs a new toilet made for modern populations, not Victorian Britons. We all deserve safe sanitation, and even from my few weeks in the desert I learnt water is precious. Sanitation is fundamental. It is within the grasp of engineers, designers and people with plain old good ideas to do it; but we need to accept it’s a problem, and get working. It doesn’t get simpler than that.

*Please donate to UCLoo Festival – just £5 or less will help – to make sure this conversation happens:  http://spacehive.com/ucloofestival2013 But hurry – there’s only one week left to reach our fundraising target!

[1] Technically it’s not a true desert, due to having rainfall. It’s a semidesert. But it has typical temperatures in the mid-thirties, pushing into forties; it’s dry, starkly beautiful, and dusty as hell, so most people stretch the term.


Toilets, Gender and Urbanism

By ucftbj0, on 17 September 2013

This blog entry makes the case for why toilets are relevant to discussions of health, gender and urbanism, and argues that toilets are just as relevant to a so-called developed world city like London as they are to a developing world city like Nairobi.

I should start off by acknowledging that toilets are not nearly as invisible in public discourse as they were a decade ago. One reason for their new visibility is the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which in the year 2002 set the target of halving the number of people without basic sanitation – currently estimated at 2.6 billion people – by 2015. This goal still looks very far away (indeed, this is supposedly the most off-track of all MDG targets) largely because sanitation has always been an unloved and underfunded cause in comparison to its sexier and cleaner companion: water. Nonetheless, the sanitation field has lately been energized by the arrival of important new champions from WaterAid to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who have seriously invested in their drive to Reinvent the Toilet.

The reason for the new interest in sanitation is obvious: every day, thousands of children under five continue to die due to faecally transmitted diseases, deaths that improved sanitation could do much to prevent (studies suggest that improved sanitation could create a 30% reduction in child mortality). Sanitation is also much more cost-effective than most other interventions, which is why toilets are often referred to by NGOs as ‘the cheapest medicine’ – every dollar invested is said to return $3 to $34 in terms of improved productivity.[1] But apart from these arguments, other justifications are also emerging ­­that emphasize the environmental and social benefits of sanitation. And study after study proves one thing: few social groups benefit more from improved sanitation than women.

The Global WASH Campaign aims to "mobilize support for bringing sanitation and hygiene to the global agenda."

There are many explanations for why clean, secure toilet facilities with running water help create safer and more equitable societies for women. Below are some of the main ones:

  1. clean safe toilets ensure better female health – not going to the bathroom can create medical problems like urinary tract infections, resulting in missed days at work and school
  2. clean safe toilets reduce female labour ­– it is usually women who carry water for household needs, including personal cleansing
  3. clean safe toilets limit exposure to sexual violence – when women, particularly in slum areas, travel long distances to find a toilet or defecate in the open (usually at night), they are vulnerable to assault and harassment[2]
  4. safe clean school toilets greatly increase the chance of young women staying on in education after puberty and the onset of menstruation.

In other words, the provision of toilets positively contributes to female health, safety, and dignity in many ways. This recent realization has helped secure stronger support for toilets in international development circles ­– this year the UN finally officially recognized 19 November as World Toilet Day.

It fascinates me, however, that this discussion about the global sanitation crisis focuses almost exclusively on what is happening ‘out there’: in Southeast Asia, India, and Africa in particular. What about our own situation here in the Global North? Of course, we are blessed with (almost) universal sewerage coverage – most of us will never know the indignities of outdoor defecation. But this doesn’t mean that we can afford to be complacent about toilets, particularly if we’re women. Toilets are important for women here, for the same reasons they’re important for women in the developing world: the lack of clean, safe ‘away-from-home’ options negatively affects female health and mobility, especially at times when women are pregnant or menstruating. This does not seem to be a surprising or controversial fact to point out. Indeed, women’s organizations in London have been very vocal about this issue since at least the 1870s.[3]

Westminster public paid toilets

Westminster public paid toilets

Yet, overall, our cultural views towards toilets in the UK might still be characterized as ambivalent — even schizophrenic. On the one hand, we clearly do value toilets on some level: Victorian London’s pioneering sewer system continues to be recognized as a source of great national pride and in our own homes, bathrooms are larger and more lavish than ever. Yet the trend toward private comfort contrasts sharply with the general condition of public facilities; 50 percent of UK public toilets have been closed since 1995. Many of those that remain have been privatized and charge fees – most loos in Westminster now cost 50p. It constantly surprises me that there is not more public awareness — or outrage — about developments, which so obviously degrade the quality of our street life.

This is ultimately why it is important that, sewers or no, we should not exempt cities in the Global North from current debates about sanitation. It is only by looking at sanitation cross-culturally that we may come to consider our own situation far more critically than we have done thus far. At the very least, surveying the sanitation field globally will remind us that it is incredibly short-sighted to take toilets for granted, as few public amenities do more to create healthy, livable, age-friendly, and equitable cities.

*Please donate to UCLoo Festival – just £5 or less will help – to make sure this conversation happens:  http://spacehive.com/ucloofestival2013 But hurry – we must reach our fundraising target by 17th October!

Additional reading:

  • Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett, The Last Taboo: Opening the Door on the Global Sanitation Crisis (London, 2008)
  • Rose George, The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste (London, 2008)


[1]        United Nations University, Sanitation as a Key to Global Health: Voices from the Field (2010), p. 11. Available at: http://inweh.unu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/2010_Sanitation_PolicyBrief.pdf

[2]         See, for instance, Amnesty International, “Risking rape to reach a toilet: Women’s experiences in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya” (7 July 2010). Available at: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AFR32/006/2010. This has also been emphasized in the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council’s dramatic postcard publicizing the problem. (See image above.)

[3]         See Barbara Penner, ‘A World of Unmentionable Suffering: Women’s Public Conveniences in Victorian London,’ Journal of Design History xiv/1, (2001), pp. 35-52.