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THE BIG NECESSITY: Adventures in the World of Human Waste by Rose George

From CHINA INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS October 1, 2008 Print & Web Edition


Reviewed by Mina Choi


Adventures in the World of Human Waste
By Rose George
304pp / Metropolitan / USD 26


What happens to the feces that you flush down the toilet? Rose George, a journalist who used to write for British newspapers The Guardian and The Independent, has traveled all over the world to uncover the mystery of the world’s sanitation systems and to map the terrain of “shit,” which she consistently refers to using this coarse expression throughout the book.

Adopting a no holds-barred approach, George holds her nose and delves into sewage systems and latrines across the globe – along the way scrutinizing Plan Ecosan toilets in sub-Saharan Africa, biogas systems in China’s Shaanxi Province, and subsidized group-installed latrines in the most poverty stricken villages of Bangladesh.

With rigor and a sense of righteousness, George documents just what it means to have sanitation when three-fifths of the world's population does not. Unabashedly direct, George makes her case clear in the introduction: “Rich toileted people; poor toiletless masses. Life, luxury and health for the privileged. Disease, death and business as usual for the poor.”

As she investigates everything from crude pit latrines to exotic, high-tech mechanisms, George provides a slew of impressive statistics: 2.6 billion people in the world don’t have access to sanitation; 4 in 10 have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket, or even box; and 80% of the world’s illnesses are caused by fecal matter in the water. “A gram [of it] can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, and 100 worm eggs,” she adds.

If these statistics weren’t frightening enough, George also bursts through the myth that those of us comfortably ensconced in a Western-style sanitation system are safe: listing cases from Ireland to Milwaukee, George finds shockingly sub-standard sewage drainage systems that often, and easily, fail. “Despite the technology, the engineers, and the ingenuity of the modern sanitary systems . . . even the richest, best-equipped humans still don’t know what to do with sewage except to move it somewhere else and hope no-one notices when it is poured untreated into drinking water,” she writes. “And they don’t.”

George also charts the history of some of the oldest sanitation systems in the world, from the development of the London sewers in the late 1800s to New York City’s oft-challenged sewage system, which spills raw sewage into the river whenever the city is hit with more than half an inch of rain in an hour. But the true rallying call for George’s sharp and amusing exposé is her concern for the masses, for whom a decent toilet — even a basic latrine without flushing water — means a change in lifestyle and a step out of the circle of poverty: goodbye to chronic illness, dysentery, and even death.

According her statistics, every dollar invested in sanitation returns USD 7 in averted healthcare costs and productivity gained. In some parts of Africa, improved sanitation has brought an unforeseen benefit – better school attendance because children don’t have to leave the school grounds and walk a distance to squat over a discreet piece of land. In Bangladesh, a subsidized toilet program empowers women who don’t have to spend hours transporting water and looking after the ill.

Particularly captivating are the anecdotes of the crusaders, who have taken up a very unpopular cause aiding the 2.6 billion people who do without what most of us take for granted. For Gram Vikras, who has spent years convincing poor Bangladeshi villagers to install latrines; for Trevor Mulaudzi, who gave up his highly-paid job to get the slums of South Africa to install no-flush latrines; and for Wang Mingying of Shaanxi Mothers, a group which has installed 1,294 biogas digesters in 26 villages, the victory for proper sanitation has been hard-fought and hard-won.

George also makes sure to cover the humorous side of sanitation — from TOTO’s difficulties marketing its multi-function Washlet toilet to skeptical Japanese customers, to Beijing’s rushed and Potemkin-like installation of 5,000 public toilets leading up to the Olympics.

The term “toilet book” usually refers to a lightweight work that is, at most, deserving of five minutes of our attention while on the lavatory. George’s carefully charted journey through the saga of sanitation, and the variegated and often dangerous disposal of feces, is a book about toilets, but it’s much more than a mere “toilet book” – it’s a work that deserves to be read by all.

For a complete list of Articles on Books by Mina Choi click HERE