When nature calls: More people in the world have a mobile phone than a toilet

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThe world celebrates its first UN-sanctioned World Toilet Day on 19 November. The Day aims to raise global awareness of the serious health, privacy and other challenges faced by the 2.5 billion people living without access to clean safe toilets.

Check out this animated promo encouraging people to: ‘Give a shit!’

It also helps to promote the work of organisations, such as Water Aid, that build toilets for those in need, look for new ways to deal with human waste, and campaign for improved sanitation and hygiene facilities for communities around the world.

And programs such as ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge‘, that see human waste as a potential resource and aim to develop culturally appropriate toilet technologies that avoid the sort of infrastructure and investment required to establish and run large flush toilet networks.*

But the problems are not just related to toilets – many people become sick from not having clean running water with which to wash their hands after going to the toilet or before they eat.

Check out the Tippy Tap – a clever low-cost low-tech alternative to a hand basin with a foot-operated lever made from a container, a few sticks and some string.* 

For those of us who are sanitationally blessed, World Toilet Day is a chance for us give thanks for what we have. It doesn’t take long when camping, renovating the only bathroom you have or dealing with a blocked drain to appreciate simple luxuries such as a functioning toilet, hot shower or a running tap.

It is also worth remembering that the sewerage systems on which most modern cities depend have only been around for a few hundred years (or less).


Sewage in Australian cities was disposed to open drains that flowed along the streets and into rivers and creeks well into the 1890s and even later in some places.

IMG_1241Some human waste, however, was collected by ‘nightmen’ once a week from outdoor ‘dunnies’ (like the one in these photos in the backyard of a dodgy terrace house where I lived for a while as a student).

These ‘outhouses’ backed onto laneways and were located as far away as possible from the house due to the smell and health risks (as it was believed at the time that a number of [water-borne] diseases such as cholera and typhoid were spread by air).**

The first Australian city to have a fully functioning, water-borne sewerage system was Adelaide in 1881.

Check out this short historical video about Adelaide: ‘The loo in review– featuring the classic Aussie tune ‘Redback [spider] on the toilet seat’.

Construction began on Melbourne’s sewerage system in 1892 with a network of underground sewers that carried sewage to a treatment farm at Werribee before being released into Port Phillip Bay.IMG_1240

Whereas Sydney’s approach was to pump its waste out to sea with minimal treatment – such that raw sewage sometimes ended up on its famous beaches. (This gave birth to the infamous ‘Bondi cigar’ – the bane of unwary swimmers and not to be confused with the great Australian blues band of the same name.)

Toilets eventually moved inside and were progressively connected to reticulated sewer networks (and to the drinking water supply for flushing and hand washing). 

In less densely populated areas, septic systems were installed.

Going full circle, some people are now installing composting (non-flush) toilets or are treating and reusing their own wastewater on site and want to disconnect from the reticulated network! (See here and here for examples, including an inspiring video about a sustainable terrace house in the middle of Sydney.)


Unfortunately, changes to washroom fixtures and how we use water have sometimes been good for water efficiency but bad for sewerage networks.

For example, dual flush toilets, waterless urinals and greywater recycling concentrate contaminants and alter solid:liquid ratios, pH and other sewage characteristics. This can lead to corrosion and clogging of ageing pipe infrastructure and put pressure on hydraulic and treatment systems that have been designed to quite different specifications.

There are also calls to require dual and triple reticulation systems to supply different qualities of water depending on the end use. While the principle of not using potable water for toilet flushing is commendable, it increases building costs and may pose health and contamination risks if not well managed. It is also adding to the complexity of an already complex system.

An alternative to our current focus on water scarcity and conservation is to develop a culture of relative abundance via the capture, treatment and reuse of rain, storm, grey and black water – and possibly even the reintroduction of treated water back into the potable water supply as part of a closed loop system (instead of sending it on its merry way downstream) – as long as the cost can be justified, any potential health risks addressed, and the public ‘yuk’ factor overcome.

Canberra and Toowoomba were two Australian cities that proposed controversial ‘indirect potable water reuse schemes’ during the last drought but neither scheme was approved. Who knows what will happen in the name of water security when the next water shortage hits? 

In the meantime, spare a thought (and maybe some cash) for those who don’t even have access to a decent toilet and clean water for hand washing.


* Thanks to Ideas that Inspire for sharing a post about the Tippy Tap and to AdamShawBiz for a post that lead me to the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.

** This was also one of the reasons for planning straight streets in cities like Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney so that the air could flow freely to clear ‘miasma’ instead of the narrow winding roads in older cities where it was believed that disease could not escape.

Photo credits: Pip Marks

Categories: Water

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9 replies

  1. I remember a chapter in Bill Bryson’s book “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” that talks about the problems of sewage in London in the mid 19th c, aka The Great Stink. — You always find such good topics that are both serious and have a humorous side too.

    • Thanks!There was lots more that I could have added – it is a fascinating topic.
      Every city must have been dealing with similar issues. i didn’t mention the horse manure plus all the polluting industries that mixed with the domestic waste, I was told that one of the industrial suburbs on the river in Melbourne used to be nicknamed West Smellbourne!
      Cheers Pip

  2. What a startling title! And a fascinating post too.
    I read an article in The Economist (UK business mag) about this issue, saying they are so short of safe toilets in India that it is now holding back their economic development.
    I didn’t know Australia had loo problems as well!

    • I hope I didn’t give the wrong impression – Australia mostly has good sanitation! (The outdoor toilet we had was at least plumbed in to the sewerage network).
      The focus for the Day was developing countries where it is often a serious problem & as you say potentially limits economic development. I can’t even imagine not having toilets in schools etc.
      Re the title of this post – someone at work suggested that the solution might be to come up with a toilet app!

  3. I thought it was funny when I started reading but didn’t realise it was such a serious problem in some parts of the world. A very interesting article Pip. I remember my Grandparents had an outhouse when I was a kid & I hated going to the loo at night if I stayed over. Can’t help think of the “Redback on the toilet seat” song.
    I also remember the sanitation truck (The Poo Pong Truck us kids called it) going around town where I grew up in Queenstown on Tassie’s West Coast. It was an old flat tray truck & when it went by we were always worried that the cans would fall off the back & spill their wares everywhere in the street.

    • I didn’t realise just how widespread the problem was until I read some of the World Toilet Day posts. I was particularly struck by stories of girls in some countries not going to school for a few days each month because there are no private toilets. This one also helped to shock me out of my complacency: http://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/going-potty/.
      Whenever I see ‘liquid waste disposal’ trucks, I am always thankful that there are ‘Kenny’s in this world who are willing to do this job (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfPpTeR_760). Thanks for taking the time to comment! Pip

      • I just read the post at Ashokbhatia’s site. We have some friend’s who just came back from a visit to China & they reported the same thing. They said people would even pee in the aisle of buses or squat in the gutter in the main shopping areas. Hard to imagine living somewhere like that


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