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UCLoo Festival 2013


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


Archive for the 'personal account' 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 – the unexpected issue

By Tse-Hui Teh, on 1 October 2013

I definitely did not expect to be talking about toilets; to anyone, at anytime. Not that it was a taboo topic, I just never identified it as an issue. I was never particularly scatological; I didn’t have a fear of flushing, and I never had a problem going. The queue for the ladies’ was probably my biggest concern until a few years ago. Then the toilet issue just grew.

Chee Kit Lai design

Chee Kit Lai design

I was researching the urban water-cycle. More particularly, how to equitably share and effectively use water resources throughout the community and the environment. Working in London, it was inevitable that I would quickly bump up against the toilet. About one-third of our daily water use goes down the toilet. Yes, one third – that’s approximately 50L of fresh, treated drinking water pumped directly to your point of use that is being used to move and dilute valuable fertilizer (your pee and poo). This is ludicrous and unbelievable in an age of sustainability, environmental protection, and shortages of both water and phosphorous.

But was it possible to change this? Were there any other outraged souls out there? Was anyone willing to change? And if so, how?

And that is how I started to talk about toilets.

It’s been an interesting journey so far. Waterborne sanitation is less entrenched that you might think. My research found that there were people in London who did care about their water consumption, but because the flushing toilet was so prevalent, they resourcefully altered their habits to encompass “yellow mellowing” to save water.

If you don’t know, the ditty is, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” I’m not sure where it started, the various urban myths are somewhere in California or Australia. In any case, it just means you only flush after a poo. What was strange for me is that more people did this than I expected. As I started talking to people, more of them ‘outed’ themselves as closet yellow mellowers. What a surprise!

The problem with “yellow mellowing” is that this is not seen as the proper way of using the flushing toilet. This is why “yellow mellowing” is usually done in the privacy of the home, and it is typical to run around and flush before having guests. This covert contradictory behaviour is not an optimal way of saving water, nor does it make it easier to harvest the nutrients from human waste as fertilizer.

Once you are on this line of thinking to save water and nutrients, most people see that the next logical step would be to make a non-flushing toilet system. This would make non-flushing the correct way to use the toilet because there is simply no flush to use. By not flushing, fertilizer could also easily be reclaimed.

This is amazing. These people, who use a waterborne sanitation system, thought it could be improved. The infrastructure is not as entrenched as I had imagined.

But this is not the end of the story. After this, the question is how would you collect the waste? It used to be the nightsoil man, but what would the alternative be in a contemporary city? Where would the collection points be? How would you effectively harvest the nutrients? Where would the fertilizer be distributed to? How would you stop it from smelling? How would you keep it hygienic? Who would manage it? How many people would need to change their toilet system to make this a viable option? Would other people also see it as a better option? What would make people change their toilet system when most people don’t even think about where the water comes from and where the waste goes? And a plethora more questions to be asked!

Your thoughts are greatly appreciated. What do you think it would take to change?

Chee Kit Lai design

Chee Kit Lai design

Have a say on the blog and come along to the UCLoo Festival, opening on World Toilet Day (19th November), to try out a vacuum flush toilet that only takes 200mL per flush, see some new prototype toilets and waste treatment systems, see how UCL researchers are answering some of these questions, and apply for the make-a-thon so that you can join in the creativity of answering some of the questions. Please also donate to UCLoo Festival – just £5 or less will help – to make sure this event happens:  http://spacehive.com/ucloofestival2013 But hurry – we must reach our fundraising target by 17th October!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and to seeing you at the UCLoo Festival!

London loves loos: the Loo Tour

By ucesbar, on 23 September 2013

A couple of members of the project team recently took the London Loo Tour, in preparation for the UCLoo Festival taking place 19th November – 3rd December at UCL’s Main Quad (please donate – just £5 or less will help – to make sure this event happens:  http://spacehive.com/ucloofestival2013 But hurry – we must reach our fundraising target by 17th October!)

We started at Waterloo Station where Rachel the Loo Tour Lady was easy to spot, toilet plunger in hand. Originally starting her loo research as a student trying to avoid fee-charging public toilets, Rachel now runs weekly walking tours around the City and will soon be branching out into additional areas, including a special Bloomsbury Loo Tour during the UCLoo Festival (booking info below: details of the UCLoo tours to be announced soon).

The Loo Tour Lady

The Loo Tour Lady

As one of the few public amenities in London allowed to charge a fee for use of their toilets, I was surprised by my own visit to find the Waterloo Station ladies’ room somewhat grim. Our guide informed us that it costs upwards of £20,000 per year to maintain a public toilet facility, but we were unable to determine how much the toilet fees amount to.

The second stop, and a much more spectacular one, was the Jubiloo public toilets at the Southbank Centre. Built for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and designed by architect Mark Power, the toilet costs 50p per use (compared with the station’s 30p charge) and has full-time attendants (hard to miss in their Union Jack waistcoats!) It also makes use of rainwater to flush toilets and wash floors.

To pay or not to pay? This is an essential question that constantly comes up in toilet politics. Rachel explained that boroughs are not, in fact, obligated to provide public conveniences – and many don’t these days. Our next stop was across the Thames near Embankment Station, where we came to an example of a public convenience which was privatized by Westminster in 2012 – like all conveniences in that borough – and also charges a princely 50p. On the up side, it was one that offers facilities for those with a range of disabilities and includes a hoist for wheelchair users.

The Urilift

The Urilift

Just around the corner outside Embankment Garden, we stood on top of the mysterious “Urilift” –one of three urinals, also provided by Westminster, that rise from the ground in the evenings to offer an alternative option for late-night male revellers.

Another, more permanent example of a street urinal was the Butterfly, outside of Charing Cross Station. The slick stainless steel design offers minimal privacy but hopes to prevent weeing on the street.

Butterfly urinal outside Charing Cross Station

Butterfly urinal outside Charing Cross Station

Next we visited the underground toilets at St. Paul’s, Covent Garden. Rachel expanded on the difficulties of providing public conveniences for women in the Victorian Era. She particularly mentioned one case: a proposed toilet for women in Camden Town, which was championed by none other than George Bernard Shaw (then a local vestryman) for many years. Female toilets were highly controversial (many people thought they were an ‘abomination’ and would be filled by flower girls cleaning their watercress) and the most successful were the ones that were discretely located underground. Toilets for gentlemen were far more appreciated elements of the cityscape. The gentleman’s loos at the Royal Exchange even had a sonnet dedicated to them.


Toilet politics

Toilet politics

Just off Covent Garden, we traversed the narrow Brydges Place alleyway. As prime territory for late-night weeing, it’s estimated that the streets of London are subjected to 10,000 gallons of urine per year; one contributor felt the need to apologise.

Next stop was the underground Cellar Door Cabaret – a bar and nightclub built inside a former men’s toilet. Once visited by Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton, the location now hosts only two cubicles, making use of “Smart Glass” which turns from transparent to opaque when the door is locked. We stopped for refreshments (and a toilet break) before continuing the walk. Nearby, another piece of toilet history was viewed at the mint green Star Yard urinal; maybe the only cast-iron Victorian model remaining in the City.


Ornate washbasin in The Knights Templar pub

Ornate washbasin in The Knights Templar pub

The cramped quarters of the urinal was in stark contrast with the enormous, lounge-like ladies’ loo in The Knights Templar pub, our next visit, which contained multiple chambers; bronze and tiled hand-washing facilities and even couches. Other pub stops included a Community Loo Scheme participant; Ye Olde London is one of 75 establishments paid £600 each yearly by the City of London to allow the public to make use of their toilets without needing to make a purchase. Unfortunately, the sign in the window was barely noticeable, and the scheme doesn’t seem especially well-publicised.

Our second-to-last stop was the free toilets of St. Paul’s Cathedral, winner of the Loo of the Year Award in 1995 despite the continued use of original plumbing. And finally, the tour ended on a high note at the rooftop patio of One New Change. Although we didn’t see any noteworthy toilets, the beautiful view across London was a perfect spot to contemplate the rich history of loos in London.

One New Change patio

One New Change patio

With impressive historical knowledge and a great sense of humour, Rachel’s Loo Tours are well worth a visit. You can book yours at:


There will be special UCL campus and wider Bloomsbury tours available to book during the UCLoo Festival, taking place 19th November to 3rd December.

For more photos and to see a short video of the Loo Tour Lady explaining the idea behind her project, please visit our Facebook and Twitter accounts: www.facebook.com/ucloofestival @UCLooFestival.

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.

Composting Toilets and the Coast Guard: an unlikely love story

By ucft590, on 10 September 2013

The hull of a steel deck barge is one of the last places I would like to be in the sweltering August heat in Virginia. Yet this is where I found myself during the summer of 2009 while I installed the below-deck components for the vessel’s two composting toilets. The barge was not yet in the water, perched on steel beams alongside the shipyard’s waterfront construction area, so I thankfully didn’t have to contend with the water’s movement. However, it wasn’t the most ideal of building situations. Getting to the underside of each toilet was an adventure in itself: I had to crawl into the hull through one of the top deck hatches then navigate through the maze of steel frames that formed the structure of the barge. Since there was a temperature difference between the interior of the hull and the warm, humid exterior air, beads of condensation continually formed within the hull. Working inside the cramped and dark compartments, illuminated only by my LED headlamp, I felt like I was spelunking in a futuristic cave.

The Learning Barge

The Learning Barge

As the Project Manager for a sustainable, floating classroom and field station called the Learning Barge, I found myself in some unusual and wholly unimagined situations during the design/build process from 2007 through the vessel’s first operation season in 2010. The Barge was conceived as a demonstration tool for non-profit The Elizabeth River Project, to educate students and adults about their local watershed along the Elizabeth River, one of the most polluted tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. It showcased a wide range of recycled products (reclaimed road signs were used as cladding), sustainable strategies (a rainwater collection feeds a bio-filtration station), and renewable energy systems (wind turbines and photovoltaic panels provide power). Since we wanted to feature a number of green technologies, the integration of composting toilets was essential for the Barge’s “head” (the name for a toilet on a boat, traditionally named since they were located at the head of the vessel so that passing waves could clean the drainage pits). Although composting toilets are becoming more common for personal watercraft, they are rarely used on commercial or industrial vessels.

Marine toilets are inherently different from their land-based counterparts since they do not have the option of being connected to sewer systems. Therefore most marine sanitation systems are adapted versions of chemical toilets that rely on either a bag system or a ‘pump-out’ for the removal of waste. Neither of these systems are ideal: they utilize toxic chemicals and, until the imposed regulations of the Clean Vessel Act of 1992, it wasn’t uncommon for vessel operators to incorrectly dispose of their waste by simply dumping the chemically-treated contents directly into bodies of water. The toilets of the Learning Barge, two 12VDC Envirolet Waterless Remote Systems, consist of three main elements: a toilet, a composting unit, and a ventilation shaft. The small electrical fans within each of the composting units operate 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, allowing heated air to travel through all six sides of the waste, thereby facilitating rapid evaporation and accelerating the compost process. This is unlike many composting systems, that only have one aeration side (the top). During the regular operational season of the Barge (March –November) the toilets require daily attention: the manual aerator within the composting unit (similar to a rake) needs to be pumped and the blackwater tank needs to be monitored.

I installed two waterless, composting toilets

I installed two waterless, composting toilets

With drawings, product documentation, and a detailed operations manual in hand, complete with instructions for what toilet paper to use and procedures for both the start of the season and winterisation, we thought that Coast Guard approval of our composting toilets would be one of the easiest components of the certification process. Yet the uniformed officers were skeptical:

  • How could we ensure that the system would work?
  • What were we going to do with the waste?
  • Would it smell?

The last question was one of the oddest: toilets on ferryboats are rarely pleasant. Over the course of several site visits, we managed to convince the Coast Guard representatives that composting toilets weren’t such a crazy concept for a vessel. We were using a proven supplier, a sturdy unit, and we had outlined every step within the composting process, including specifications for compost disposal in accordance with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (a permit was needed for all compost produced outside of residential settings).  With questions answered, our vessel received certification in September 2009 and later that autumn, the members of the Coast Guard independently toured the vessel and its sustainable systems as part of a training exercise. Today, in the Code of Federal Regulations for vessels, there are a number of composting toilets approved as Marine Sanitation Devices (MSD).

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

Click here to learn more about the composting toilets used on the Learning Barge:


Click here to explore the current environmental endeavors of the Learning Barge:


You can also learn more about the design/build process of the Learning Barge:


Toilet stories

By ucessjb, on 3 September 2013

Sarah on LooFamilies are libraries of embarrassing stories. In my family embarrassing stories are catalogued by theme, as well as person. Embarrassing stories of my youngest sister usually involve overeating, notably of pickled foods. My theme is toilets, or ‘going to the toilet’. Like the time I heard the call of nature whilst climbing a big hill near a busy road with my siblings. From that height everything looked small, and I figured I was invisible to the drivers so far below. When I returned to the car park my grandmother informed me, and countless others in years to come, that I was not. Or my habit of keeping the door open to our semi-outhouse in the small village where I grew up, so I could keep an eye on the infrequent passers-by, mortifying my mother who was more concerned that the whole community could see me. These stories remind me that toilets and ‘going to the toilet’ are meant to be hidden, a lesson I have been very slow to learn.

There are no doubt very good evolutionary, sanitary, psychological and cultural reasons for hiding our toilets and going to the toilet in private. On the other hand, I like to think that outliers like me, who are slow on the uptake of toilet invisibility, serve some sort of social purpose.

We need to go public about toilets. We can no longer hide from the global sanitation crisis. Roughly two and a half billion people don’t have access to any form of improved sanitation. That means that more than one third of the world’s population don’t even have a pit latrine, never mind a flushing toilet. Water resources around the world are increasingly stressed and conventional sewerage infrastructure is expensive to build, maintain and operate.

The flushing toilet and water based sanitation systems that we take for granted in cities like London are unlikely to be replicated in the rapidly urbanising cities of the global south. There are many advantages to flush toilets and water based sewerage systems, but present and future shortages of money, water and nutrients indicate that their costs increasingly outweigh their benefits. It is time for a new model of sanitation, which is more affordable and sustainable.

There are many people around the world working to develop alternative sanitation technologies and systems, particularly to address the global sanitation crisis. The problem is that, by and large, these toilets remain less desirable than the flushing loo. The new model of sanitation needs to desirable.

And so once again I am making myself visible on the toilet. This time I am working with colleagues at UCL to curate a festival of technology and ideas about sanitation. Hosting a toilet festival in London might seem trite, given the scale of the crisis in the global south, and our contribution to solving those vast problems will be minuscule. But our proposition is that the sanitation crisis is truly global. We should all be horrified by the current global shortfall in access to sanitation, and it is wise to be prepared for resource shortages here. If London was the centre of the nineteenth century water based sanitary revolution, then it should also be part of the twenty-first century ecological sanitation revolution. If ecological sanitation is to be affordable, sustainable and desirable, then perhaps it will one day be the preferred option in London. This what we hope to contribute – to make toilets visible and to start a conversation about how we might make ecological sanitation the globally preferred option, not the only option for people who cannot afford any better.

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!