Making the Invisible Visible with CBSA’s Rémi Kaupp
Rémi Kaupp, Executive Director of the Container Based Sanitation Alliance
Imagine not having a toilet.
It’s a situation that we’ve asked you, our readers and supporters, to think about from time to time, and this week, with World Toilet Day just around the corner, we are asking you to take a closer look at what living without a toilet means for people around the world.
And to help us think more deeply about some of the specifics and possible solutions, we spoke with Rémi Kaupp, Friend of SOIL and the Executive Director of the Container Based Sanitation Alliance (CBSA) about perceptions of poop, the role that the public sector could take in financing sanitation solutions, and the value of sanitation alternatives like CBS (Container Based Sanitation).
“Most people just want to flush and forget,” Rémi tells us from his home office in London. A sentiment that’s a good reminder of the discomfort many people feel when talking about human waste. Some in the NGO world might even say that the reason that improved sanitation is so behind in reaching global development goals is due to the negative attitude around, and a distaste for, discussing the reality of poop itself.
So, it fits that this year’s World Toilet Day theme is Making the Invisible Visible. “Flush and forget is a mentality,” Rémi continues. “I’m not saying it’s universal, but it’s widely shared and we have to take it into account.”
The consequences of the failure (or non-existence) of sanitation systems in many developing countries, however, is starting to become more visible, even in places like the UK and the US. “It’s becoming more real for people,” Rémi says. “This ‘invisible’ is becoming more and more visible. Unfortunately in the UK it’s because if you want to go swim in the sea on the southern coast, close to where I am, you have to check maybe whether there’s been a recent wastewater discharge,” — a pollution problem that some of our readers might relate to. In many coastal communities in the United States, storm runoff and waste treatment plant overflows result in red tide events, bacterial contamination of shorelines and beaches, and massive fish kill-offs.
3.6 billion people in the world lack access to a functioning toilet, which leads to a lot of untreated human waste being expelled into the environment. Not having access to a functioning toilet is also a staggeringly difficult way for people, individuals just like all of us, to live.
“Imagine daily life without a good toilet,” Rémi says. “Imagine not having four walls around you when you poop. Imagine your toilet room not having a lock. Imagine the toilet doesn’t flush. Imagine it’s full. Imagine you can’t clean it. And then imagine members of your family dealing with all of that. Everyday.”
Or, imagine being a young girl walking outside and alone towards a shared, public bathroom in the middle of the night, or struggling to remain hygienic during a menstrual period, or a new mother trying to care for her healing body after giving birth. Imagine trying to potty train a toddler without a potty.
“Many people have a toilet story,” Rémi says. “Of not being able to find one when they need it or of embarrassment with absolutely needing one at an inconvenient time. You don’t need to go very long without a toilet to realize how crucial it is. Just a couple of hours can become very painful.” All of which makes living without a toilet unimaginable for most people who have one.
Now, imagine that you are not the only one without a toilet, but you live in a community where very few people have one. What would be different about your neighborhood? The street you live on? Your yard?
“Even if one person has enough space and money to get a toilet and dig a pit or build a septic tank, you need enough space for the waste to infiltrate the ground and you need a truck to come every so often to pump it empty – or you need a sewer.” Rémi continues, “This is why we talk about sanitation, because a toilet that just leads outside your home is useless. It’s just going to pour waste into your backyard or into your neighbor’s backyard. You need a lot of infrastructure behind that toilet to make it all work.”
Rémi says that while the idea of a toilet in your home often evokes personal responsibility, it is actually a civic issue. “Sure, there is personal responsibility, but most of the cost, most of the infrastructure needed for a functioning sanitation system, happens outside of your home and is done by professionals and governments with utilities and such. When these support systems don’t exist, that’s when the real problems happen. It is a very very public issue.”
Which, Rémi says, is why regulation authorities should start to recognize CBS as a cleaner, safer and more efficient way of managing the sanitation crisis in developing urban areas. Historically, municipalities have been resistant to financing any kind of sanitation other than sewers, but it seems that there is beginning to be a shift to alternatives like CBS, as more CBSA members work with and are able to influence (and educate) local authorities.
“A CBS service is so much cleaner than emptying a pit,” Rémi says. “Emptying a pit is so messy. It leaves the road full of [poop]. It’s hazardous to workers. CBS toilets are clean and safe. They are amazing! You see them and say: Oh! Sanitation can be like this. Really. Wow!”
Some CBSA members are helping to bring CBS technology into the mainstream by utilizing the technology and service structure in a wider variety of contexts: for events and festivals, at building sites and for glamping – to promote the ecological component of CBS and its environmental benefits.
“This is very interesting,” Rémi says, “because it helps to show that people actively desire this technology. It’s not the ‘poor’ solution, it’s not the second rate solution. It’s something that actually you can be proud of having that can work for a lot of people. I like that very much.”
SOIL is proud to be a member of the Container Based Sanitation Alliance. And, we are grateful to Rémi for his time and his incredible work in promoting sustainable and innovative solutions to the global sanitation crisis. You can read more about the CBSA on their website. You can support SOIL’s work this World Toilet Day, and everyday, at www.oursoil.org/donate.
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