Trevor Noah started off his gig as the new host of The Daily Show with some bathroom humor.
“Growing up in the dusty streets of South Africa, I never dreamed that I’d one day have — well, two things really — an indoor toilet, and a job as host of ‘The Daily Show.’ And now I have both, and I’m quite comfortable with one of them.”
This made us wonder how the other 53 million South Africans are doing, toilet-wise. So we spoke to an expert on toilets and sanitation in South Africa, Chris Buckley, a sanitation expert who lives in the city of Durban. Spoiler alert: Maybe Noah shouldn’t be quite so comfortable with his indoor toilet.
You’re a chemical engineer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and what would you say is your field of research?
I don’t think we can say that in the mainstream media.
But even the World Bank now talks about, “S*** Flow Diagrams,” or SFDs.
On that subject, Trevor Noah is clearly happy that he’s advanced from using an outdoor toilet to an indoor one. Is a move from latrines to indoor flush toilets a sign of progress?
It’s not progress, it’s retrogressive. Fecal mater when contained in the ground in a rural area is safe, but many flush toilets discharge into rivers or the sea. Yes, if you flush, it leaves your property, but what happens then? What is the effect on the greater environment?
The dry weight of the average person’s feces is 11 kilograms [about 24 pounds] per year. Toilets use 18 tons of water to transport those 11 kilograms, dispersing pathogens in 18,000 liters of water in the process. Flush toilets are not a sensible idea.
The Minister of Water and Sanitation [Nomvula Mokonyane] stated publicly: “It’s not the flush.” The aspiration for flush toilet is not going to be met for everyone. There are a variety of issues, mainly the lack of water in country. It’s not the way to go.
Are you saying that the current sanitation situation is good enough?
Not at all. Here in Durban, out of 3.6 million people, about a half million people living in informal settlements outside the urban edge are using either homemade, unimproved pit latrines or open defecation. We need a better-designed, dry sanitation system.
And what is being done to bring that about?
It’s all I work on. Here at the University of KwaZulu Natal, we have ten people working on toilets. We have the world’s first fully functional fecal sludge laboratory, and we’re helping to set up others, funded by the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. [Editor’s note: The Gates Foundation is also a funder of NPR and this blog.]
The challenge has the aspirational goal of developing a sanitation system that has all the conveniences of a conventional toilet system, but it would have a treatment system off the grid, with no external connection to electricity, water or sewerage [and the toilet] would produce enough electricity to power a light in the toilet and charge a cellphone, and it would produce fertilizer and a small amount of ash. Finally, it has to be designed for the poorest of poor.
How is that progressing?
The toilet challenge is now in Phase 3. It’s moved out of the lab curiosity stage. The number of designs has been narrowed down. Prototypes are being field-tested around the world right now. Some large manufacturers have been brought in.
So toilets are very important to Bill Gates?
He has come to Durban to look at our toilets, and recently he drank [water made from processed feces] to prove that it was clean.
It will surely take an attitude adjustment for people to think differently about indoor vs. outdoor toilets.
Culture is changing. Open defecation is not tolerated as it was before. A woman in India will reject a man as a husband until he has built a toilet for her. If you want to get married you have to build a toilet for your wife.
And what have you done at your home?
I have a urine-diversion toilet outside my house, in a concrete-block outhouse. If someone else is using the flush toilets inside, and I have to go, I’ll use it. But I must confess, the novelty has worn off. It’s located about 30 or 40 meters from front door, in the back part of the garden. When I built it, my wife said I’d get over it. It’s probably got cobwebs now.