Cover image: Toilets: we all need to 'go'

Toilets: we all need to 'go'

Bodily waste is one of the most fundamental things that we all have in common. It's a taboo subject right across cultures, and for good reason: untreated it can cause disease or even death. WARNING! Some of the information, links and video clips here may be shocking and/or use 'rude' words, but we think they have important things to say about a life and death issue which shouldn’t be shied away from in schools.

Why teach about toilets?

Some 2.6 billion people have no access to a toilet whatsoever, and that includes a latrine, a bucket or a box. Poo can be fuel or fertilizer; it can heat us and help feed us. It could be described as the most under-rated resource in the world. [embed][/embed] For more poo-related facts take a look at this 'graphic' info-graphic: Poop! The four-letter word no one's talking about. There are lots of development issues that could be examined through toilets: the lack of clean water and sanitation available to a significant proportion of the world’s population; gender and equality issues; the spread of disease; and, not least, the innovative solutions to these problems – many of them coming from the people affected.

Where do toilets fit in the curriculum?

Citizenship: poverty, human rights D&T: appropriate technology, sustainability Geography: development, urbanisation, poverty, sanitation, water, health & disease, appropriate technology, use of resources, sustainability History: disease & medicine, industrialisation, urbanisation PSHE: health RE: different religious rituals & habits Science: water, disease & medicine, appropriate technology, sustainability

Issues covered in this article

A bit of toilet history

By some accounts, the toilet has added 20 years to the modern lifespan. Readers of the British Medical Journal voted sanitation the biggest medical advance in the past 200 years. In London, before sewers and toilets became popular in the 19th century, one in two children died before their fifth birthday. [caption id="" align="alignright" width="200"]Wikipedia | Faraday giving his card to Father Thames - Punch Cartoon Wikipedia | Faraday giving his card to Father Thames - Punch Cartoon[/caption] The history of bathrooms, toilets and sanitation in the UK has parallels with development issues currently faced by many other countries, eg: urbanisation, slum housing, and access to clean water and hygiene facilities. In the mid 19th century it is estimated that there was one toilet for every 60 people in urban areas. Even as late as 1951 21% of English and Welsh households did not have a WC. The BBC documentary If Walls Could Talk has an hour long episode on the history of bathrooms, and presenter Lucy Worsley asks what we'd do without them. The Wellcome Collection has an excellent 6-minute video on Dr John Snow and the Soho cholera outbreak of 1854 - he did groundbreaking work mapping water pumps and was the first to link cholera to contaminated water supplies. Following this, the 'Great Stink' of 1858 led to Parliament ordering the building of London’s sewers by Joseph Bazalgette and there was subsequently a reduction in deaths from cholera.

Water or paper? World toilet culture

According to the Worldwatch Institute some 27,000 trees every day are dumped or flushed away as toilet paper. Using recycled paper not only helps reduce this deforestation but also uses a lot less water in the pulping process. The first documented use of toilet paper in human history dates back to the 6th century AD, in China (Wikipedia). But in many parts of the world, especially where paper or the necessary plumbing for disposal may be unavailable or unaffordable, toilet paper is not used. And in many parts of the world, people consider using water a much cleaner and more sanitary practice than using paper. Roughly half the planet uses paper or tissue to clean with and the other half uses water.

"We are kind of disgusting. In water cultures like India, where you see all these people going to do their business with a little cup of water, they think we’re extremely dirty. They can’t believe it. Muslims, who have to be scrupulously clean according to the laws of the Quran, also think it’s kind of weird that we have this habit of using paper, and imagining we’re clean. We’re not." Rose George, author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, quoted in an interview on

Japan has possibly the world's most sophisticated, state-of-the-art toilets, such as the Washlet, for example. Features include: integrated bidets, dryers, heated seats, air conditioning, 'disguising' noises, music, automatic flushing, deodorizers, automatic seat cleaning, automatic seat lowering (the marriage saver!) and glow-in-the-dark seats. Rose George has also explored the history of Japan's Hi-Tech Toilets.

Sanitation, disease and slum toilets

Goal 6 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals aims to achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030. Illness, lost productivity and other consequences of dirty water and inadequate sewage treatment meant up to 7% of gross domestic product was lost from South East Asia in 2005, according to a study by the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program (PDF). Diseases, including cholera which affects some 3 million people each year, can be largely prevented when effective sanitation prevents faecal matter contaminating waterways and drinking water supplies. Diarrhoea, a simple stomach bug for anyone with a bathroom, kills more children than HIV/AIDS. Around 900 children a day, according to WaterAid. How do the toilets of the billions of people living in self-built, shanty housing compare with our flush toilets?

  • 'Hanging latrines' - often nothing more than two planks elevated over a drain or beach.
  • Toilets connected to an open drain.
  • Community-run public toilets: families join up to a membership scheme and pay a monthly fee.
  • [caption id="" align="alignright" width="250"]View from the flying toilets | Digital Democracy on View from the flying toilets | Digital Democracy on[/caption] The unsanitary 'flying toilet' used in African and Asian slums - plastic bags are used as a container for excrement and thrown as far away as possible. (This photo, 'View from flying toilet' was taken by a young slum dweller in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya.)

Bill Bryson’s African Diary contains a vivid description of 'flying toilets' in Kibera:

"To step into Kibera is to be lost at once in a random, seemingly endless warren of rank, narrow passageways wandering between rows of frail, dirt-floored hovels made of tin and mud and twigs and holes. Each shanty on average is ten feet by ten and home to five or six people. Down the centre of each lane runs a shallow trench filled with a trickle of water and things you don't want to see or step in. There are no services in Kibera—no running water, no rubbish collection, virtually no electricity, not a single flush toilet. In one section of Kibera called Laini Saba until recently there were just ten pit latrines for 40,000 people. Especially at night when it is unsafe to venture out, many residents rely on what are known as 'flying toilets', which is to say they go into a plastic bag, then open their door and throw it as far as possible."

Cleaning up after others: Even though the job was outlawed in 1993, there are still a million 'manual scavengers' in India - Dalits or 'untouchables' (the lowest rank of the Hindu caste system) collect other people’s waste to make a living.

"Every day, Varsha does the following: She walks to the dry latrines – sometimes nothing more than two bricks on the ground – used by the five families who employ her. There she scoops the s**t with a piece of tin, loads it into a cracked bowl, and carries it away on her head." (Colors Magazine #82, 29 December 2011)

Gender issues

A lack of proper toilets makes women vulnerable to violence, for example if they are forced to defecate outside at nightfall or in secluded areas. So having access to effective sanitation enhances dignity, privacy and safety, especially for women and girls. And if you think about another taboo subject, menstruation, you will understand why having proper sanitation available in schools will help girls reaching puberty to stay in the educational system. Read about Days for Girls, a small charity that creates reusable feminine hygiene products for women and girls, which means they can attend school when they have their period. Period Poverty also affects women and girls in the UK- Bloody Good Period is a charity working to address the problem by increasing donations of sanitary products to food banks and drop-in centres in London and the UK. Or read the amazing story of Arunachalam Muruganantham from south India, who spend years researching ways to develop affordable sanitary pads for rural women, facing ostracism from his family and community. Extracts from a New York Times article on women's rights and toilets in India:

“In a 2009 study, the Center for Civil Society, a non-profit organization, estimated that the capital had only 132 public toilets for women, many of them barely functioning, compared with 1,534 for men.”

“For thousands of women across India, the existence of a toilet near their workplace is no small thing. It affects women’s ability to work, their safety (many rapes in slums and rural India happen in areas where women have to walk a long way to reach the toilet) and their mobility.” (Improving Women's Status, One Bathroom at a Time, New York Times, 15 March 2011)

A recent briefing note, Insecurity and Shame (PDF) looks into the impact of lack of sanitation on women living in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. It really shines a light on what it's like for women living without access to a proper toilet.

Sustainability issues

The largest use of household water goes to flushing the toilet. An average household flushes 13-14 times a day and this can add up to around 30% of total water used in the home. Older toilets use around 13 litres of clean water per flush. (Source: Waterwise.) You could investigate various methods to make toilets more sustainable:

  • Improve an old toilet’s use of water by putting a hippo watersaver or weighted plastic bottles in the tank.
  • A major waste of water in existing toilets is leaks. A slow toilet leak is undetectable to the eye, but can waste many hundreds of litres each month. Find out how to use food colouring to detect leaks.
  • Use a composting toilet which treats human waste through composting and dehydration. In addition to providing valuable fertilizer, these toilets are highly sustainable because they save sewage collection and treatment, as well as lessen agricultural costs and improve topsoil. Practical Action has a 3-minute videoclip about poo-powered eco toilets facilitated by Practical Action in Peru.
  • Limiting your toilet flushing - this mnemonic 'poem' might help: If it’s yellow, let it mellow; If it’s brown, flush it down!

In the sewer-less world 90% of sewage ends up in the sea making it the biggest marine pollutant. The nutrients we excrete create perfect conditions for algae and other plant life to breathe. These suck oxygen from the water, leaving none for other aquatic life. The ecosystem suffocates and a "dead zone" is formed.


There are many innovative solutions to the problems of sanitation – not all without controversy... A community-led Total Sanitation Movement is happening in countries such as India, Bangladesh and Bolivia:

“A few visitors will go to a village, and the villagers will want to show off their village to the guests. They’ll take them around the village, and then at the end of the tour, the visitors will say, “Well, yes, that’s nice, but can we see your open defecation grounds?” Because they’re polite, the villagers will take them there. The technique is to make people stand there and confront it, to not be able to turn away from the fact that they’re s***ting in the open, and that their kids are tramping it back into the village, and that they’re all eating it. Someone calculated that people in villages who are doing open defecation are probably ingesting 10 grams of s**t a day. That’s pretty disgusting.” (Read more in The fly and the water, Colors Magazine #82, November 2011)

The Peepoo is a small biodegradable bag coated with a chemical which turns human waste into fertiliser (see BBC News article) - but would you be prepared to use one? An interesting topic for a debate on aid. Composting toilets are dry; excrement is mixed with sawdust, ash or similar products to absorb liquids and reduce smells. Decomposition happens much faster than in wet sewage treatment and results in fertiliser which can be used to grow food. (See Practical Action info sheet). A public toilet that pays its users has been opened in Tamil Nadu, India. It is the first of its kind. The faeces it receives are composted, and the urine is used as fertiliser for bananas and other food crops. Users are paid up to 12 US cents a month. Read more on this Musiri blog. It's not just in the developing world that poo is used for fertilizer:

"Sewage sludge is rich with nutrients that crops need. The price of phosphorus – a vital fertilizer – has risen 50% in some parts of the world, as phosphate reserves dwindle (and could be gone in 100 years). So farmers love it. Two thirds of British and American fields are fertilized with a by-product of your bowels." (A waste, Colors Magazine #82, November 2011)

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]Biogas plant sketch | Wikipedia Biogas plant sketch | Wikipedia[/caption] Alternatively, you could use poo to provide a sustainable source of electricity:

"Ten out of Rwanda’s 14 prisons now get up to 75% of their cooking fuel from biogas. It saves money and trees; Rwanda is fighting deforestation. Installing biogas digesters has saved the National Prison Service US$1 million a year in firewood costs." (Prison Power, Colors Magazine #82, November 2011)

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="240"]Kibera Biowaste Centre by newbeatphoto - click to view on Kibera Biowaste Centre by newbeatphoto - click to view on[/caption] In an anaerobic digester, one person’s poo can produce 30 litres of biogas a year – providing a source of electricity, reducing the time and/or expense of collecting firewood and eradicating the respiratory diseases associated with the smoke produced by traditional fires. This photo shows a public toilet and showers in Kibera; the bio-gas produced is burned to heat the showers.  

Further teaching resources / ideas

Useful dates on the global calendar

These would be good dates for exploring issues of toilets and sanitation:

Teaching resources on sanitation issues


Dying for the loo (free) Christian Aid assembly on what life is like for people who don't have basic sanitation Our World of Water (£6.99) Francis Lincoln book following the lives of six children from around the world and exploring what water and sanitation means to them Children’s Rights: Health (£10.99) Save the Children book exploring the right of all children to health care and some of the reasons why this doesn’t always happen


Flush, youth (free) Christian Aid resources including an assembly Practical Answers (free) Practical Action has information sheets on a range of waste management and sanitation issues

All ages

Water and sanitation image gallery (free) Some great photos for classroom use from Practical Action Learn Zone (free) WaterAid's website for young people and teachers to explore the problems of unsafe water and sanitation WaterAid also has the following video clips on the impact of poor sanitation in various developing countries:

  The picture at the top of the page is Children's Toilet by ssalonso on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons licence.