Beyond Engineering and Science: The Sanitation Challenge

An article in Hindu about Bill Gates’ recent visit to India stated that his “ultimate dream is to design low-cost toilets.” In order to design cheap and dry toilets, with as “good or better smell characteristics as a flush toilet,” the Gates Foundation plans to bring together the world’s best scientists and engineers for a workshop in Seattle this August. Considering that 60 percent of the world’s open defecation happens in India, this may be welcome news for our nation. But, can this public health challenge be only addressed through technological innovations?

A couple of personal experiences of using public toilets in India and the US come to mind when I begin to think deeply about this issue. Stuck in a 3 hour-long traffic jam on a highway from Muzaffurpur to Patna during my last fieldwork visit to Bihar, I was certainly missing public toilets when I had to use the facilities at a stranger’s house. Being a girl who grew up in urban India, I was certainly not comfortable with open defecation, even in an extreme emergency situation.

Public toilet in San Francisco

Porta Potties

In contrast, accessing public toilets in the US was not an issue, and rather smell was the prime consideration. When I first used the self-cleaning public toilet in San Francisco, I was quite impressed by the technology. It was definitely more appealing than the malodorous, unhygienic porta pottiesin the US, which I always refrained from using unless in extreme emergencies. However, I realized the very same self-cleaning technology could prevent many users from using these facilities. For instance, a man who tried his best to close the toilet door and was unable to do so for a minute, left quite embarrassed and flustered. He was clueless that the door was not closing because of a three-minute self-cleaning cycle. It was quite evident that even the simplest technology can have profound psychological impact on its users.

Toilet in Rural Bangalore

The designers of the low cost, better smelling toilets that Gates is envisioning should consider such psychological impacts of design, as well as think of issues beyond cost and smell. Such low cost toilets would perhaps be best suited for rural contexts in India, where a large percentage of the population does not have access to toilets even at their homes. However, even if they are made accessible, they may not be used owing to culturally specific sanitation practices as we found during a field visit prior to the second Design Public in Bangalore. In rural India, people prefer squatting while relieving themselves and prefer going to the fields due to easy accessibility, minimal waiting time, and the aesthetic pleasure and spatial openness of the outdoors. In order to promote regular toilet usage, then, we need to deliberate upon on other ways of motivating people. One such idea that emerged during a breakout session on sanitationwas the concept of designing toilets as communal spaces, where the women in particular could gather for many other kinds of community activities as well, such as washing clothes and bathing.

While technological innovations may lead to revolutionary toilet designs that save water, utilize waste for fertilizer and biogas, and ensure better smelling toilets, they may not motivate people to actually use them. In order to bring this required behavioral change, it is not only necessary to make toilets more accessible, but also design them keeping the socio-cultural context in mind. The group of people who are getting together in Seattle should strongly consider involving social scientists in addition to engineers and scientists, as both kinds of innovations – technological as well as socio-cultural – are required to address the sanitation challenge.

About Ekta Ohri

Ekta Ohri has a background in Architecture, Visual and Critical Studies, and Anthropology and is interested in exploring links between design, culture, and lived experience.
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