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SANITATION: Let’s talk about poo

LONDON, 22 October 2012 (IRIN) - Enter the dignified portals of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine this week, and the first thing you will see is a gold-plated turd, resting on a scarlet silk cushion. It is labelled “The Golden Poo”, and is actually a Japanese good luck charm (a word play on the similarity between the words for “luck” and “poo” in Japanese.)

It is the most eye-catching exhibit in a Sanitation and Hygiene Exhibition on display at the London School until the end of next month. The director of the School’s Hygiene Centre, Valerie Curtis, loves it. “It’s my favourite,” she told IRIN, “because I am on a campaign to get people talking about [excrement]. And the Golden Poo is a fun and lively way to draw attention to the topic that kills most kids in the world today. It’s Public Enemy Number One.”

The display is a cheerful and eclectic mixture of hygiene-related items and gems from the London School’s own archives. A smart blue squat toilet plate and a bright green plastic potty from Burkina Faso sit alongside reminders of Britain’s own, deeply insanitary past.

There is an 1866 cholera poster from the east end of London, where the disease used to be rampant, and a book, dating from 1887, about the city’s first proper sewage system. It was only constructed because a hot summer raised such a stench from the River Thames that MPs threatened to abandon the riverside Houses of Parliament.

For sanitation campaigners the fundamental problem today is the same as it was 150 years ago. Good systems and products are there; the difficult thing is getting people to adopt them. While the London School does have engineers working on the physical plumbing of good sanitation, it also spends a lot of time working on people’s attitudes and habits, figuring out what they are and how - if necessary - to change them.

The School’s Hygiene Centre is partially funded by the multinational company Unilever, responsible for market-leading washing powder and soap brands. “A marriage made in heaven,” said Curtis, “people who want to sell soap, and people who want to get people to use soap.” She is unabashed by criticism of the School for taking corporate funding. “For me it would be immoral to be going out selling the benefits of soap, without getting the soap companies to contribute.”

Positive messages

As well as money, Unilever has offered its expertise in advertising, the art of getting people to do what you want. One lesson is that whatever you are promoting (handwashing, for instance) should have good associations, not bad. The traditional, hectoring hygiene messages, says Curtis, are quite the opposite. “They say: ‘You dirty person, you didn’t wash your hands with soap. Your children are going to die’.”

So enter SuperAmma (SuperMum), a cartoon character being tested out in South India. Village focus groups have helped choose the most appealing images for SuperAmma and her son. Her little boy washes his hands and grows up healthy, clever and well mannered, becomes a doctor and cherishes his elderly mother. In early trials this positive message seems to be getting positive results.

''The Golden Poo is a fun and lively way to draw attention to the topic that kills most kids in the world today''
Another of the exhibits in the exhibition, the so-called “Tiger Toilet”, may also need a bit of PR help. It is designed for urban environments where it should be an improvement on the traditional pit latrine, which can be smelly, attracts flies and is difficult to empty in the middle of a city.

The toilet uses a pour-flush system, which takes a couple of litres of water, just enough to maintain a water-filled trap in an S-bend, and stop any smell coming back up the pipe. The waste is flushed away down a diagonal pipe and into the pit, where it lands on a wire mesh tray. On a tray below lives a colony of tiger worms, already commonly used in compost systems, and found in most parts of the world. The worms eat and digest the waste so efficiently that there is very little residue. What little there is can be used as fertiliser and is safe to handle.

Jeroen Ensink, who is developing the Tiger Toilet, sees it as the perfect intermediate technology. “The great thing,” he told IRIN, “is that the system can be retrofitted. If you already have a pit latrine, then it can go in the same pit. And it offers an upgrade to households which can’t afford the cost of fancy modern plumbing.”

A marketing challenge


But how are people going to feel about worms living in their toilet? At the opening of the exhibition it was attracting a lot of attention from the School’s international students. One young man from Kenya was impressed. “For our situation,” he said, “if you have such a thing, and it can easily be set up, even in an urban setting, it would be quite something. People build these small pit latrines or septic tanks in their home and it will keep filling up and you always have the cost of emptying it. But one question might be what happens if these worms develop into butterflies, something like that. You would really need to know how to approach the people and develop key messages about that.”

A US student was not too sure. “Instinctively it doesn’t strike me as a comforting thing to know that there are worms in your toilet. But I guess if I can’t actually see them and don’t have to interact with them, ultimately I can forget that they are there.”

This, says research manager Eileen Chappell, is exactly what a lot of the London School’s work is all about. “We have a lot of people working on disgust. We have people doing PhDs, writing books on disgust, and why people are disgusted by things. People say, ‘Oh, worms in the toilet, that’s gross!’ but the Tiger Toilet is very good, very sustainable. So how do you get them to change their attitude and see it as an acceptable solution?”

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Theme (s): Aid Policy, Health & Nutrition, Water & Sanitation,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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