Why Sanitation Is a Basic Human Right

Author Rose George says there's nothing taboo about talking poop.

A man washes in Yamuna River in New Delhi in February 2008. City residents pour an estimated 950 million gallons of sewage into the waterday each day, 50 percent of which goes in untreated. (Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Image)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Rose George has heard all the jokes before. For the premier author and journalist covering the largely overlooked world of human excrement, it comes with the territory. But for the 2.5 billion people around the globe who do not have access to a toilet, the sanitary disposal of human waste is no laughing matter; it is deadly serious. Around 700,000 children die annually from diarrheal diseases brought on by unsafe water and no access to proper sanitation. That’s almost 2,000 kids every day.

George's second book, The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, was deemed one of the best books of 2008 by The Economist and one of the top 10 science books of that year by the American Library Association.

I recently interviewed the British author about her work and her thoughts on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s initiative Reinvent the Toilet. When I contacted her, I told her that my book on the subject of industrial farming, Animal Factory, was also largely about crap. Rose let her celebrated—and necessary—sense of humor shine. “Well done on your poop book,” she replied. “We are a small but I think highly prestigious group of people, the poop writers.” 

TakePart: Why, in your experience, is this topic of poop so taboo?

Rose George: A few reasons, but I think the principal one in the developed world is that the flush toilet was such a wonderful waste-removal device. It could be kept in the house, didn’t smell, and crucially was put behind a locked door. It became something private, unlike before then when poop was everywhere. That was lethal from a public health perspective, but at least the topic was talkable.

That said, I think that the perception of poop being taboo is actually wrong. Since my book came out in 2008, I’ve had hundreds, possibly thousands, of conversations about toilets and poop, and fewer than half a dozen people have changed the subject with distaste. Usually, they immediately come up with a story about toilets. It’s as if they have been given permission to talk about it. 

TakePart: Half of India’s population, about 650 million people, live without access to proper sanitation. Is the problem in India a cultural one, a technological one, or a bit of both?

George: Actually it’s far worse than them living without “proper sanitation.” They have no sanitation at all and practice open defecation. Again, the answer is complicated (which is why it took me a whole book to explore): Culturally, human shit is more taboo in India than, say, cow shit, which is easily handled and used for constructing houses and disinfecting walls and such. That’s odd, when there’s so much human shit lying around. Also, culturally, India’s caste system designates the job of cleaning latrines to the bhangi or Dalit caste, the untouchables, so people are able to ignore the vast amount of untreated sewage and human excrement lying around.

I’ve met health workers who know exactly what the dangers of having no sanitation are, and who have been given a free latrine but still don’t use it. I don’t think that is a particularly Indian trait. It’s what Erwin Goffman called “civil inattention”—we are all adept at ignoring things that are difficult to fix. 

TakePart: What do you think of India’s "No Toilet, No Bride" campaign?

George: It’s brilliant. Some people object to it as being too interfering or dictatorial, but I see it as spreading a message of what is socially acceptable and socially unacceptable. If it can help a toilet be seen as a necessity rather than an option, then it’s great. 

TakePart: What are your thoughts on the work of Bindeshwar Pathak, considered by many to be the godfather of the sanitation movement in India?

George: I admire him enormously. He is a high-caste Brahman who chose to work with untouchables. His organization has built hundreds of thousands of latrines and runs thousands of public toilets. What’s not to admire? 

TakePart: What was the most disgusting thing you came across in your research?

George: A latrine in a town in rural China, which was a hole with two bricks placed on either side, open to the street, with no stall or door, and the pit was full of maggots. I still used it though. 

TakePart: Finish this sentence: In five years the situation with Indian sanitation is…

George: Going to be better than it is now. 

TakePart: What do you find most hopeful/least hopeful about the future of sanitation in developing nations?

George: The last five years have brought huge and hopeful changes. Sanitation is now a human right. More than 100 countries signed a document to create U.N. World Toilet Day. Yet in 2000, the same international community refused to include sanitation in the Millennium Development Goals. There are other good signs: The Gates Foundation’s efforts are highly visible and inspirational. Even Hollywood celebrities these days are unafraid to use the word “toilet.” What this all means is that sanitation has moved up the ladder of priorities (it was at the bottom). That can only be a good thing. I’m hopeful. 

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