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India Is Winning Its War on Human Waste (gatesnotes.com)
687 points by gauMah on April 26, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 281 comments

    > Unfortunately, in many places, it’s not
    > feasible to lay down sewer pipes or build
    > treatment facilities. [...] But giving
    > people access to toilets isn’t enough. You
    > also have to persuade them to use the
    > toilets.
I can't find it now, but there was a news video making the rounds a year or two ago that showed that this problem is much more fundamental than that.

It showed a Indians in a tiny village who were falling ill because they were literally taking a shit in the same river that they were getting their drinking water from, just a few meters away.

These people all knew each other, and even if they didn't have any toilets or basic infrastructure I would have thought that something as basic as "if you shit where you drink, you get cholera" would be common knowledge anywhere in the world by now.

Of course it would have been nice for those people to have sewer pipes, toilets etc. But in that case the problem could have been solved with a few shovels, and a marked area indicating where you should be going to do your business, preferable in some open field far from the drinking water.

For those people toilets would be nice, but unnecessary. They clearly all have a shared interest in not drinking each other's shit. If by some magic they aren't aware that mixing shit with water leads to bad consequences that seemed to be solvable by some one-time government presentation on the consequences of them keeping doing what they were doing.

But somehow the problem persists, it's unbelievable.

The first or second chapter of Diffusion of Innovation covers a case where a health organization official tried to convince people to boil their water. No one did it. The concept of "germs" was so foreign to them, and their beliefs about water were already so ingrained. It was a complete failure.

It seems obvious to say "if you drink dirty water you will get sick" but you're assuming that people can make so many connections - what makes it dirty? What makes you sick? What is illness?

In many places there is no connection between 'germs' and illness because germs are not a concrete concept to them.

This is a good point.

Though that as a kid, I was educated as to what happens when you drink unclean water or food made at the road side.

There were a lot of educational shows that aired on a channel named Doordarshan. That channel was free and you were able to watch it even without having a cable connection.

The educational/scientific shows aired around 10 AM to 12 PM the time after which most kids started school. So it would happen that I was getting ready for school and learning about all this shit; pun intended.

I never drank water from a shitty source ever again. Never left water in a bucket outside as it leads to creation of mosquitoes etc.

I must admit though, it is not enough. I also remember government officials coming to my grandfather's village where they educated about how mosquitoes are born in stationary water.

I think one of the best thing to do is, give some sort of a portable microscope to these officials, that can let people take the water they drink and observe the microscopic bacteria - or lack thereof - in their water. Even someone who is uneducated or does not know of scientific method will reason with what they see themselves.

Edit: Remove colloquial/useless words and grammar changes.

> Even someone who is uneducated or does not know of scientific method will reason with what they see themselves.

This is really the subject of the entire book - it's not this simple. There are many factors that are involved in someone accepting a truth that goes against what they already know.

Maybe it's easier for people (here) to understand to consider that it goes the other way just as well. Being educated on ways that food/drink can be contaminated also results in certain people getting truly physically nauseous if they consume food or drink that they believe could have been potentially contaminated. You probably know some people like this.

"mmm these pineapple chunks for the fridge taste tingly and slightly alcoholic, did you marinate them in sparkling booze or such?"

"probably just fermented a bit, they're five days old"


There's much more situations like this, food that fell on the ground, or un(der)cooked meat. People that have a firm basic understanding of how germs work, have some pretty irrational beliefs their ability to teleport to the insides of uncut raw-but-seared-on-the-outside muscle tissue. And many will remain queesy about it, even if you teach them.

My point is, you can lead a horse to water but you can't teach it to fish if it wants to keep warm for the rest of its life.

On one hand I think 'what the heck is wrong with these people' and on the other hand is the painting The Gross Clinic, which shows a complete disregard for the concept of hygiene during an operation, even though germs and their effects were discovered decades earlier.


You have indeed hit upon a good point.

I am reading many of the comments here with a lot amusement. Perfect marriages between the clueless and the patronizing. So many efforts have come and gone: (i)hey you 3rd world person here take this money build a proper toilet, (ii) hey Indian govt here's some aid for toilet for your people, (iii) hey my brother we built these toilets for you, now use them, (iv) govt gave us money to built them so we did it for you... and on and on in so many variations.

There is a strong urge to believe in the narrative: oh the poor souls if only they had access to the toilets that they have yearned for things would be all right. Lets build them for them, lets raise money etc. Yes its true for many people, but it is also very untrue for many.

Just as the a one size cancer cure is silly notion (because cancer is not a single thing) there is no such easy one dimensional cure here either. There is a lot of understanding that needs to take place before this is solved.

Some people break open toilets constructed for free, by the govt or a charity, in their house and sell of the bricks. Why ? because they think a toilet in the house makes it impure and dirty. No worries about that tied cow that shits with gay abandon inside that very house, that is clean holy godmother. Heck the current govt is getting social security cards for cows (I am not kidding). Some will fight tooth and nail for their habit of defecating in the open. They don't see a problem with that. Disease ? what disease, that's just bad karma.

Political parties play into this as well. Right now one party is big into "swachchh(clean) Bharat". A move sorely needed and something I strongly support. But when this same party was not in power, they were big into propaganda: toilets are a 'foreign influence', a 'theft of tradition'. Open defecation has been how it has been done and god almighty in the name of tradition and patriotism that's how it would be. Break free from your toilets if you are a patriot ... etc etc. resist rule by the Italian.

I don't think that maybe necessarily the case as these very people will boil milk before drinking it. It is basic practice in rural India to boil milk before consuming it even if it was straight from the cow. So I find it extremely odd that these very people couldn't connect the dots and make the same leap onto impurity of water.

There is a cultural/ religious myth in the sub-continent that fresh, fast-flowing water is always safe to drink. This might have contributed to the failure of this leap.

Before the massive overpopulation of the continent this was very likely true for all practical effects.

It's probably as simple that boiling water requires energy and is expensive.

People understand just fine what "illness" is. Every culture has a long tradition of medical practice since long before anyone knew what a germ was, and people in many civilizations (this isn't some eurocentric western-world thing) have known for hundreds or thousands of years to keep feces away from their food and water.

It seems obvious because it is obvious and has been, in India and practically everywhere else, for centuries.

What the parent described is probably due to other external factors (e.g. lack of choice, land restrictions or other things) that constrain behavior.

Edit for further clarity: it's unlikely these people are all "too stupid" to realize what they're doing is not healthy, but that there are other factors making it a (perceived) better choice than others (which may be perceived as worse).

>> In many places there is no connection between 'germs' and illness because germs are not a concrete concept to them.

> People understand just fine what "illness" is. Every culture has a long tradition of medical practice since long before anyone knew what a germ was, and people in many civilizations (this isn't some eurocentric western-world thing) have known for hundreds or thousands of years to keep feces away from their food and water.

The germ theory is relatively recent and was not readily accepted in Europe. And for that matter Europe was very late to adopt a theory of keeping faeces away from their food and water.

Traditional Brahmanism in India is extremely fastidious. Sadly by connecting the practices to caste they did not become widespread among others.

Your sense of obviousness is inconsistent with the investigations of history or sociology.

You have Indians invent small-pox vaccination techniques which clearly shows, at least to some level, an understanding and acceptance of the idea of "germs" albeit something more basic.

Furthermore trying to tie everything to caste related issues will cause more harm than good, as it is popular and easy to blame a simple demon the truth is often more nuanced.

> Furthermore trying to tie everything to caste related issues will cause more harm than good, as it is popular and easy to blame a simple demon the truth is often more nuanced.

How true that is, and I agonized over how to word the end of my comment to avoid overstating/ misstating / offending / hitting peoples' hot buttons (pro or con). However I think there's an essential truth somewhere in there, and I chose the word "fastidious" because it is more clear than incorrect (and emotionally laden) words like "better" / "cleaner" etc. In fact "fastidious" can even have some slightly negative implications.

But to be realistic: my Brahmin grandparents and great grandparents (born in 1800s!) & family all lived well into their 90s as long as they survived childhood. My anglo grandparents and great grandparents (also born in 1800s) were lucky to survive childhood and make it to their 50s, much less past that.

The note I was responding to claimed that Europeans had the germ theory and anyone who did something bad for their health was willfully ignorant and stupid.

That wasn't my note you were responding to, in that case. In fact it was the exact opposite in meaning to what you suggest.

> What the parent described is probably due to other external factors (e.g. lack of choice, land restrictions or other things) that constrain behavior.

It's also a cultural thing. Just the other day I was minding my own business on a relatively central street in the European Eastern capital where I live and all of a sudden I see a Roma lady, in her early 50s, reasonably well dressed, coming towards the lightning pole that was on my left side, taking her underwear down and urinating, literally in the middle of the sidewalk, in plain daylight. Before that she had been talking with some acquaintances of her just outside a court-yard, I presume that if she really wanted to she could have asked those people if she could use their toilet.

I can't help observing that it's very common for men to take a leak on the street, especially if they've been drinking. It's not the most sanitary habit but it's not especially harmful either, and I don't feel anything different about a woman squatting to take a leak either.

Public defecation, though, I have no hesitation about shaming someone for unless it's some sort of emergency.

Public urination is illegal in most places, you get a fine. I wouldn't call it common, I'd call it something that happens in alleyways, under cover of darkness, and only when the man in question is desperate and judgement impaired. In the city, at least. In the country everyone pees when they have to, gender whatever.

Most places?

In the UK it is, but my bladder/prostate totally gives up, and in that situation it's a choice between a public place or my trousers.

Everyone understands that illness exists. Not everyone understands what it is, or why it occurs. This has nothing to do with stupidity.

> have known for hundreds or thousands of years to keep feces away from their food and water

It wasn't that long ago that Chicago had to raise all their buildings a couple meters, to help keep feces away from the people. And in the next generation had to reverse the course of a river, to keep feces away from their drinking water.

So it's certainly not that ingrained, or not since so long ago, or, as most things in life, easier said than done.

That's a case for bending the truth.

Find out how to explain it in their existing culture. Curses, uncleanness, etc. There's probably SOMETHING responsible for misfortune, death, and disease.

Claim that there is a method which helps battle this, it involves purifying the water with a strong fire for this duration of an hour-glass. Once it is cooled it is, for a short time, safe to use.

Tell the truth, but dress it in marketing. Use the same tricks that advertisers use to sell damned near everything to damned near everyone.

Shitting in the river will make you sick, but it's also the low-class thing to do, it's unfashionable, it's unattractive to the opposite sex, it makes you look foolish. Toilets are respectable, they're modern, they're stylish, they're a status symbol. You don't have to invoke superstition to create a taboo.

If you want people to boil their water, just provide subsidised tea and let the addictive properties of caffeine do the work for you.

I am particularly hooked on this idea.Distributing free low concentrated sugar free tea :-) I remember a case study i read some years ago about the difference in drinking culture between india and china.The Chinese factory workers often have a 24 hour boiling pot of low concentrated green tea parked where they constantly consume small portions of during their day.AFI remember around 70% of water intake for them was via this medium. That could be an out of the box solution.:-)

One interesting attempt at this was a health intervention in Cambodia. Rural villagers were having iron deficiencies. A cheap countermeasure was to put lumps of iron into boiling broths or water that people were going to drink, but it was hard to convince locals to actually follow through.

So, they made iron lumps in the shape of fish (a local good-luck symbol) and handed them out - increased compliance a lot.


This wouldn't work in the case I mentioned because they actually already had a very strict definition of when water should be hot and cold. If this were vague or unclear in their culture, you could lie and say "Oh yeah, because you believe X and Y, Z is true" - ignoring the ethical questions this brings up.

But in their case water being boiled was something you did when you were sick. This already had them boiling water for sick people, the sick would get better (to some extent confirming their belief), and they'd go back to cold dirty water.

This opens the door for unintended side effects and cargo-cult behaviour. Not recommended.

Education is key, and I'd like to think the topic could be covered in a couple of sessions.

This is an area for innovation. Managing change/altering beliefs are extremely difficult.

To help iron deficiency in Cambodians, they were encouraged to cook with iron ingots. No one used them.

So they shaped the ingot into a lotus flower. Dice.

Cultural investigation showed that fish were symbols of luck, health, and happiness. Fish-shaped ingots worked out!


Rory Sutherland often makes the point that advertising agencies are uniquely equipped to solve many complex social problems. They are, by some considerable margin, the best in the world at persuasion and behavioural change. The minds that persuaded a billion people to smoke cigarettes are well equipped to persuade people to dig proper latrines and wash their hands.

The medical and logistical response to the recent ebola outbreak was astonishingly swift and efficient, but there were clearly major deficiencies in public communication. Perhaps there's an unrecognised need for "Advertisers Without Borders"?

It's possible that the need is less unrecognized and more actively resisted. Donors who want to address disease in some tropical locale may not want to see their donations directed into ad campaigns instead of tangibles.

I think it has to be pitched as "outreach".

Making advertising agencies useful for something ? This would be great.

This is very fascinating; it's so interesting when something as simple as the shape of an iron ingot can have such huge effects.

The Wikipedia article you linked says that the lotus flower shape was rejected as well.

I don't know what he meant with "Dice.", but after that he did say that it was fish-shaped ingots that worked out.

Does dice tend to mean success in this scenario?

It could be a typo. "no dice" is an idiom in English for an "unfavorable result".


The phrase is "No dice"

Why don't they just use iron pans? It's more affordable and more natural, you don't have to put something in your food, and it's being heated directly at the bottom.

Did they just invent this iron fish to create more jobs?

Literally in the linked Wikipedia article:

"Although cast-iron cookware is known to transmit iron to food during cooking, the cost to obtain it is prohibitive for most of the individuals living in poverty in rural Cambodia, who earn less than $1 per day."

In what world would a cast iron pan be cheaper than a small ingot?

It seems like it would be simpler and easier to just give them skillets than faffing around with ingots. If one is worried about the perception of value or suspicion of gifts one could offer to trade them for their existing cookware.

Of course it would be simpler and easier but who is going to pay for it?

Cambodia is a nation of around 15 million people and a large proportion of them are affected by iron deficiency. You are talking about trying to get skillets/ingots into the hands of hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions.

Even cutting the cost of each item by $1 reduces the overall cost to either the organization(s) running the program or the poor people of Cambodia by hundreds of thousands of dollars. The organizations running this program and the poor of Cambodia aren't sitting on an infinite pot of money.

The economic upsides from improved public health outcomes make it seem like a textbook case for foreign aid - it's easy enough to quantify the cost of the iron deficiency. Admittedly I'm thinking in autocratic terms rather than about the need for buy-in and all the other factors.

Sure, but the iron fish option is cheaper and just as effective. With the money they're saving but using ingots instead of whole skillets, they can solve other problems too.

The weight also plays a big role, especially since they're carried around a lot.

That's a point I didn't consider.

What world? I don't know. I searched and find this website before commenting: http://www.luckyironfish.com/shop , which says It costs $25 each, while you can find $22 iron pan on Amazon.

Sure it might be cheaper in Cambodia, then the price of iron pans would be lower as well.

They didn't just use an ingot, they shaped the ingot into a lucky fish, which also costs money.

It's $25 because it's buy one - give one free. http://www.luckyironfish.com/facts (At the bottom).

Buying new pans is such a stupidly colossal waste of money for low income families. They already have pots and pans, and definitely don't need more. An ingot is something they can easily accommodate. And it probably costs a whole lot lesser than 20 USD.

Who wants to put an ingot in their food? But a lucky fish? We could all use some luck.

And the good thing about a fish rather than a pan is you can put it in your soup pan, your wok, your fry-pan, etc. Try putting your cast-iron pan into your wok!

The ingots were distributed for free, and likely cost under a dollar each to manufacture in bulk.

It's $25 for you, because online sales are supposed to pay for free distribution.

Check out how we, the 'wise modern civilization' splash all our chemicals and shit into the rivers and oceans, and then eat fish from there.

I bet we will be looked at as 'these savage guys were totally dumb, look at them, it's unbelievable' about 50 - 150 years later.

Also, you americans take away your babies from your mothers after few weeks, putting them to a cold hearted institutions, making them frustrated for life? In exchange for what, extra 1 % of GDP from working mothers? That's a pretty bad deal I must say.

Most people in Europe would see this as a barbaric practice, as we know children need a close contact with parents till at least 2.5 years (don't you study developmental psychology there?), and our social systems support that.

(wanted to show that we both are 'those dumb indians' from some more civilized point of view)

> Also, you americans take away your babies from your mothers after few weeks, putting them to a cold hearted institutions, making them frustrated for life? In exchange for what, extra 1 % of GDP from working mothers? That's a pretty bad deal I must say.

> Most people in Europe would see this as a barbaric practice, as we know children need a close contact with parents till at least 2.5 years (don't you study developmental psychology there?), and our social systems support that.

I am from Europe, and have studied developmental psychology, and I can assure you that there is no empirical evidence for your claims of daycare hurting development of children. Quality of parent<>child bonding does not correlate with children's age when entering daycare.

The attachment relationship cam be affected by daycare if the promary caregiver becomes the people in daycare.

A childs temperament settles after 3 and imo 0-3 is a critical period for bonding with the parent.

I would suggest a healthy mix of some daycare and some stay at home parenting, so the child can better socialize with other children and learn from them, but also grow a secure attachment to their parent and observe the adult world, not just what other children do.

Bowlby's attachment theory ref https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.psychologistworld.c...

I don't think that really answers the parent's point. The connection between cholera and shitting where you drink is an obvious one. The connection between putting kids in daycare and polluting the ocean and whatever bad things come out of that are a few times removed and remote. It's a lot easier to see that drinking poo water will make you sick than it is to see that putting kids into daycare will "frustrate them for life."

But what is interesting about this case and the comparison is that knowledge about something does not necessarily lead to change in behavior. So you should probably argue that it is a lot easier to change the place a village shits than to change the structure and incentives of our globalized economy.

I get your point but at least you get the 1% GDP gain, what upside is there to shitting in your drinking water? It's few steps closer?

It's close, and the river washes everything away. You don't know about or understand the rest. How would you?, nobody thought to tell you. Life is difficult.

A little bit of vitamin B12.

Very good analogy!

> But somehow the problem persists, it's unbelievable.

Before you get too high and mighty there....

Not long ago (1996) here in the USA, they were still removing all the outhouses that had been positioned directly over fresh-water streams all over Appalachia. See "Straight Piping". [1]

Its easy to judge poor people in other countries, we forget how recently we were (and maybe still are) making similar mistakes.

[1] - https://www.arc.gov/magazine/articles.asp?ARTICLE_ID=94

Even that link you posted says

>Although most people with poor systems knew they had problems and wanted to correct them

And also states that most of the problem is due to money (or lack of).

In India even most of those in rural areas with toilets don't use them. [1]

Further, even in urban areas of those those with access to toilets, 7.5% choose open defecation on the streets instead.

Pretending that people that want indoor plumbing but can't afford it is the same situation as people with access to plumbing but don't use it is very disingenuous.


Saying that people who have access to a public squat toilet in a rural area have "access to [indoor] plumbing but don't use it" might also be taken as disingenuous, but I suspect you were mainly not thinking carefully.

No one fails to recognize the convenience of indoor plumbing. Running water right in your home is incredibly convenient. With a properly constructed drain system, it means you can also have a completely private place to defecate, indoors, a near-miracle of convenience.

I do not think that this is a fair characterization of the proposal that is being rejected by some in India.

It is possible that you have been inside a public squat toilet in a densely populated rural area, or for that matter even a poorly maintained public squat toilet in a busy urban shopping area.

If so, it probably takes little effort to imagine yourself seriously considering defecation in a ditch, or an alleyway, as an alternative.

If one had already been doing such all one's life, then there would be no obstacle of unfamiliarity, inexperience, or or public shame to discourage you. I do not see why one would not generally prefer to defecate in a familiar and comfortable manner, in the open air, rather than a small, dim room begrimed with the stench and trace faeces of thousands of previous acts of defecation, performed by strangers.

The most horrific toilets I've ever used in my life were public toilets in India. Overflowing. They cost 2Rs as well. Even in hotels the toilets are pretty gruesome.

Can you blame them though ? If you've been to one of these old roadside stops, you'll know how bad Indian toilets stink. I'm guessing the lack of piped water does not help.

I live in a small hamlet that uses a small treatment plant that ultimately runs off into a river. Treatment plants have gotten better, but after talking to residents, they are blissfully unaware of dos and don'ts of septic like systems. They are totally ignorant. Information is at their fingertips. I'm now worried about micro-fibres - from clothing etc. Most pollutants are avoidable but there are many available and it's easy to forget/ignore. Additives, cleaners etc. Not sure the swans are that impressed.

So how was the practice ended?

I wonder how long it took for westerners to stop throwing their "night soil" out the window and start installing and using toilets.

What always struck me as strange is that the Romans had and used public toilets, but afterwards Europe went back to shitting in a bucket and throwing it out the window. Puzzling.

Don't mix up "Romans" and "Europeans." A better question is if the residents of Rome and other cities that had public facilities went back to the bucket or if they continued to use and maintain the public toilets. The rest of Europe likely never had public facilities to begin with, and the fall of the Empire might have delayed that technology transfer I suspect.

There was a collapse of urban civilization. Rome's population went from around a million to about 50 000 people. Sanitation gets more important the higher the population density is.

The Romans took their technology to the end of their empire. You can see Roman toilets and plumbing in Britain.

Recall that a lot of Roman Engineering was based off of what they learned as they colonizes/conquered. Meaning these sort of civilized solutions likely existed in other parts of Europe.

I think they went back to using lower-level solutions because of the collapse as dimitar mentioned.

Around 1854.


Which about ten years later resulted in the Victorians building over 100 miles of sewers.


that's only 163 years ago ... that is distressingly recent

New York was even later. Paris though began to built sewers in the middle ages:


You know something, Jon Snow! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLpzHHbFrHY

This is one of the famous cases, in 1854: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1854_Broad_Street_cholera_ou...

See Edward Tufte's take on it too http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/tufte_snow.html

I seem to remember that Roman toilets were often in the kitchen...

> I seem to remember that Roman toilets were often in the kitchen...

Not unusual for buildings in Europe or the US built around the turn of the last century either.

These days, they're typically renovated so that there's a wall in between and the bathroom door leads off of an incredibly narrow kitchen, but a hundred years ago, those were in the same room.

(And those were the ones who were lucky, because they actually had a private bathroom).

Still, buckets and "out the window" are better than "everywhere"

Where is "out the window"? People are going to be walking through that and it will flow downhill towards the water table and into well water. "out the window" is "everywhere" for most purposes.

Better than shitting in people's pots and then loading them up with food and soup.

Did anyone ever do that?

There's a pretty good show on life during the era, one of the jobs they feature is people scowering the shit in the streets to find dog shit because it has different useful properties than horse shit.


Wow. Should have just made a deal with the dog owners lol.

That's an outstanding article and highly relevant, thx.

It has been said the knowledge was lost in the dark ages.

I will bet that most of the comments in this thread are from people who have never lived in rural India.

I have, and will tell you the real reason. It has little to do with literacy or education. It is because (warning, this is going ironic) Indian people are incredibly disgusted about shit and want to not think about dealing with it.

I'm Indian myself. For example, we think toilet paper is a horrible idea. You just clean your shit with...paper...and just leave it like that? That would not fly, even in any of the villages you mention. They have to have water to clean their shit, usually supplied in a small bucket or vessel. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lota_(vessel)

Now think about temperatures. The current temperature at many places in India is more than a 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Your average restroom or shovel pit or whatever is going to smell incredibly bad and be full of flies and a horrible smell. That is why some people prefer the river, and don't use the toilets that are built for them (links elsewhere in this thread).

Solutions? It's a usability problem. Bidets for poop washing that can be filled up instead of using piped water, super hydrophobic coatings, really large pits (so you don't smell the waste) –- things like that are going to be the solution. Unfortunately, no one approaches it in that way, and prefers to go the route of "Let's teach these uneducated savages not to shit where they eat." This is very unfortunate and I hope it will change in the future.

AFAIK no one poops in the river either (that would be one tricky feat); they poop on fields adjoining the banks and wash up afterwards.

In places like Haridwar one gets screamed at for as little as putting the footwear in the stream.

Then again there are sewer dumping into Ganga all over the place (though this was/is being challenged) - starting in fact from a few hundred meters down from Hari ki Paudi.

I don't know.

Since Indian literature (and with it the languages) have essentially become comatose, perhaps the country has lost all ability to make logical deductions [1], that'd be necessary for any level of consistency.

[1] No, I know Sanskrit deals very much with logic and reasoning and grammar. I don't see so much as a vestige today, however. May be since it was/is practiced by a tiny minority that may not be all the surprising.

> It showed a Indians in a tiny village who were falling ill because they were literally taking a shit in the same river that they were getting their drinking water from, just a few meters away.

Many things that are obvious to now are not obvious unless we are rightly educated. You might like to read http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/01/12/37566392... which believe it or not is not even 150 years old.

Sure, but non-obvious things often manifest in culture nonetheless. For example the romans with their mighty aqueducts, cleanliness rules in religion, drinking tea (needs boiled water) or beer/wine (alcohol desinfects), or being obsessed that evil witches dont poison your wells etc.

> drinking tea beer/wine (alcohol desinfects)

Also, beer provides large amounts of calories, so it also feeds the consumer with low risk of the "food" getting stale. There's a reason why in Bavaria a fat belly is called a "Bierbauch" ;)

A fat belly is literally called a beer gut or a beer belly in English as well.

Could it be an example of a tragedy of the commons?

No one wants to drink water where someone shit but everyone would rather shit in the water than in a field somewhere far and away from the ability to clean oneself.

this is it right here ... what better way to get that baby-fresh feeling than just popping a squat in the river, where the current takes away your inanimate offspring downstream, and cleans your nether regions.

Humans are creatures of habit, and often, self interest (a clean arse) will win over benefits to others (see all politics ever, almost)

Say village A is upstream from village B. A poops in the water. How far downstream does B need to be for the water to be drinkable? Or is there no safe distance? If there is a safe distance, in theory, you could teach the villages in A to drink upstream and poop downstream. By the time the water gets to B, it's clean enough to drink?! Then teach B to poop upstream and drink downstream... You probably don't want to put me in charge of public health :P

Well, the so called public defecation usually happens in a) slums b) rural areas where they have not built toilets at home. In the rural areas, they just go out into the fields which offer some privacy. It is never in the "public" like a river etc.

Agreed, this is quite baffling. The only answer I can think of is that India hasn't been prioritizing education in rural communities. Population is not a valid excuse: do people still shit where they drink in China?

I'm more understanding when it comes to the lack of basic sanitation facilities, but lack of education is inexcusable in this day and age!

China used night soil as fertilizer historically; they don't anymore (when was the practice abandoned, I wonder? And is there any Chinese interest in terra preta?), but it got them into great habits. The same is true for at least Korea and Japan; I don't know as much about Southeast Asia.

Only drinking hot drinks also helped China's health. Fernand Braudel, in The Structures of Everyday Life, discusses this in passing; even 17th-century observers felt that it would be better for the Spanish colonials to adopt Chinese practice in the Philippines rather than keeping their custom of drinking everything iced. (Where did they get the ice?) Braudel also mentions a case where St. Francis Xavier drank a cup of cold water, to the horror of his Chinese entourage, who warned him not to keep up such a dangerous practice...

"(Where did they get the ice?)"

That is a fantastic question ...

Many different cities around the world have an "icehouse" street - the origin of the name being obvious. However, I know of an "icehouse" street in Hong Kong and I always wonder "when the icehouse was here, and this street was named for it, where in the world were they getting ice?"

I know you can pack ice in sawdust and straw, etc., and keep it for the summer, but Hong Kong is a very, very long journey from anywhere that freezes in the winter ... where were they bringing ice from ?

They got the ice from the east coast of the US and from Norway. Ice used to be big business.


The trouble is that the ice trade is 19th-century, but Braudel quoted a source from the 17th century about taking everything iced.

Can any Filipino reader comment on whether snow ever falls there? I didn't see any snowcaps on Google Satellite View, but that's not the best of sources...

The hot water thing was nothing more than a method to kill bacteria AFAIK. In much of Europe the preferred way of doing that was to produce beer.

Many East Asians to this day still believe that hot water is better for your health, even when filtered water is cheap and plentiful. If you ask for water at a restaurant it will inevitably be warm. I've had people express concern when drinking cold water during the winter, or when I'm sick.

"In much of Europe the preferred way of doing that was to produce beer."

In much of Europe the preferred way of doing that was indeed to use alcohol, but in more than one form. Beer's usage, compared to other alcoholic beverages, was higher only in germanic and western slavic regions (like Czech). The french, the spanish, greeks, romanians, and maybe others in the Balkan Peninsula, preferred wine. Eastern slavic and northern Europe had their vodka-like beverages. Europe is not only Germany, mind you!

No. China has historically used toilets. In fact, the earliest documented case of a flushing toilet date from the Han dynasty ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/851957.stm ) , which is more than 2000 years old, but that's rare. Most Chinese toilets were buckets in a separate room. China historically used night soil as fertilizers. These bucket toilets were carried out of the house and later used to fertilize crops. This is the reason why the Chinese never had salad or any uncooked vegetables as part of their cuisine. They might not have known about germs but they did draw the correlation between uncooked vegetables and being ill.

China, India, Korea, and Japan all used pig toilets. In some places, usage was 22.7% as of 2003.


That's disgusting honestly. Doesn't that pose a health hazard to the people who consume that meat? I don't eat pork so I never knew how filthy pigs can be!

Feeding shit and trash to pigs, and other animals like chickens or rabbits, used to be a common custom in European countries as well. It's not as terrible as it sounds, since for the most time these animals don't get infected by human germs, effectively acting as a kind of walking antibiotic bag, and therefore it's an acceptable way of disposing of residues and getting some extra food at the same time.

A Jewish friend once commented that it's the reason for kosher laws. I'm not sure if he was trying to justify an ancient custom with modern insights.

As far as I know, it is the primary reason why pork is outlawed in Islam. But man, I didn't know it was as bad as that haha :P

I've heard plenty of anecdotes from this decade that toddlers in rural China commonly poop onto the street, and that public toilets on e.g. buses are too messy to be hygienic.

It seems to be common enough: https://www.quora.com/Chinese-Etiquette-and-Behavior-Is-poop...

Better than doing it in one's own drinking water, but I think what saves the Chinese is not education, but a tradition of cooking absolutely everything (see sibling posts).

It's far beyond "toddlers in rural China commonly poop in the street".

In downtown Shanghai I got to watch a mother walk out of her business holding her child, have the child crap on the sidewalk (while being held in the mothers' arms), and then brought back inside. This was not a baby. The kid looked about 3-4 years old.

This goes on in subway stations as well. The parent has the kid sit on the edge of a garbage can and crap into it.

If you go you'll see the children commonly wear these lower garments with the whole groin area open. It's so the child can squat and pee or poo anywhere without needing adult attention. The child is taken to public parts in the city and around downtown like this.

Chinese public conscientiousness is far below anything you can imagine until you experience it.

This arises from a mixture of two things:

A strong agrarian tradition where no piece of human waste is going to be left festering in the sun - somebody is going to pick it up and make good use of it. In all seriousness this has been the case until chemical fertilisers became cheap enough, before then every town had organised dung-gatherer guilds who organised daily cleanup of faeces in the street and sold the product to the farmers in rural areas. Even urine-soaked earth dug up in alleys can be sold as a source of nitrates.

A second and more ingrained reason is that young children are regarded to only have the intelligence of animals because you cannot reason with them like how pre-Christianity Romans thought, thus they are to be treated with the same level of respect that animals deserve: if kids want to relieve themselves, then it might as well happen on the spot because self-control is beyond their facilities.

Shanghai is also unusual among major Chinese cities that many households in the old town are not serviced by sewage lines. Instead everybody bought their nightly waste to public septic tanks and pour it down a chute before a vacumm truck takes the load away every few weeks. Thus the residents are typically less fazed at the sight of faecal matter than their compatriots.

I'm not sure I buy the first two explanations. Taiwan is culturally Chinese, but if someone takes a crap on the street it'd be a small news story. Usually it's blamed on mainland tourists.

I'd say it's more to do with development than anything else.

>Usually it's blamed on mainland tourists.

Having been to Taipei several times myself, I'd say that it is no better or worse than any Asian city. but that's really just prejudice. I will concede, however, that Taiwan had the value of hygiene worked into them during the Japanese rule. In the first ten years of the 20th century, there was 49 newspaper reports of public urination leading to a formal warning by the police in Taihoku alone (ironically, more than half of these high-profile cases were perpetuated by Japanese), and public record shows that thousands of people of all sorts of background were fined every year for the same offense that did not make it to the news.[0] This really goes to show that the colonial government took the concept of hygiene very seriously, but even today some people will just do as they please.[1]

[0]: https://books.google.com/books?id=AKi5Wm5Mu_UC, page 27

[1]: http://news.cts.com.tw/cts/general/201001/201001030380454.ht...

I've never heard anyone complain about that stuff in Taipei the same way they complain about it in Mainland cities. But it's not like I've been taking surveys.

Taiwan hasn't seen the immense shift of rural to urban population than mainland China has.

Living in China I've noticed that the attitude towards the very young does seem really similar to the attitude they have towards their pets. It's always been so baffling.

Do you have any other info on the second point?

It's hard to find a book or non-paywalled journal article on top of my head, but the thesis below touches on the basic premise of the Chinese view on children.


In short, Confucian scholars view personhood not as something gifted at conception or birth, but a learned virtue that develops progressively as each person lives through different stages of their lives. Thus rearing young children is not unlike taming a wild animal and a lot of nasty things kids do can be forgiven on the basis that they have not learned the proper way to act yet.

The ugly side of this thinking is that this naturally restricts youth rights since they are saw as an extension of the will of their parents; indeed one can argue that children are never fully independent until the death of their parents absolves them of these control and responsibilities. On the other hand, Confucianism has always been ambivalent if not indifferent to topics very touchy in the Judeo-Christian tradition such as abortion and infanticide, because the victims have not had a chance to develop their personhood yet, and thus these acts are sometimes considered deplorable but never compared to murder.

That was a very very interesting read. If you have any other recommendations in the same vein, please let me know (wouldn't mind buying a book)

I'm currently reading a reprint of a 110 year old book about how China and Japan have kept their farms fertile for 4000 years.

The basics are lots of elbow grease, and continuous application of river silt and (aged?) animal and human sewage.

It occurs to me that this book predates both industrialization (factory effluent) and the last cholera outbreaks. Which makes me wonder what sort of sweeping agricultural practice changes came in subsequent decades.

Would appreciate a title if you run across it again and remember this request.

The term of art in the West is "anthroponics". A related subreddit [1] seems to currently focus upon using human urine in agriculture (with some really fascinating results of using watermelon seeds to sterilize the urine). Human feces given to black soldier flies and feeding their larvae to chickens and tilapia as a high-protein supplement might be more workable and timely than turning then feces into compost, and if scalable it could add a lot of new capacity to developed world sewer systems.

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/Anthroponics/

Farmers of Forty Centuries by F. H. King

Reprinted by Dover in 2004

Ok. "Educated" people don't shit where they drink from.

But they do much worse. Things like dumping toxic industrial waste that can make a whole region of people chronically ill to a river..Or drive machines that spew toxic gases literally to the face of fellow human beings..

I mean, is anyone really any better?

I honestly don't think education is the point here. _Dogs_ don't shit where they eat. Pet rats can be persuaded to poop in their cages and not on your couch. There's some kind of pressure happening here that the researchers failed to notice. Maybe leaving the village is unsafe - girls can't walk 50m downstream to a designated toilet because they'll be attacked and raped along the way. Maybe there are tigers. Maybe a tragedy of the commons has occurred where no one is maintaining the designated toilet so it turns into a disgusting pile of feces that reeks from kilmeters away. Why would anyone want to defecate there? The river probably feels cleaner, even if they know better.

My rats were litter trained actually. It took literally 1 day. During free-roaming time, I would just open the cage and put a ladder up to the bottom floor of the cage. They'd return home when they had to poop or pee.

However, pet rats might not be a good example here. This might be anecdata, but my girls would eat, shit, and sleep in the litter box. I had to buy grated ferret litter boxes to keep one from getting sick. She got E.Coli from sleeping in the litter box, and it presented as a URI. Talking with other rat owners, this wasn't uncommon behavior either.

Out of sight, out of mind.

externalities are different, no?

are they?

Part of the problem is also because of lack of education. Unlike in the west, literacy rate is not as high, hence they miss out on the knowledge and awareness that can come from being able to read. But, India is making progress even on that front, so eventually I think both these improvements will complement one another nicely and things may be much different 10 years down the line.

I am originally from India(now I live in US) and my grandfather who was a doctor in India back then in the 1950s would advise people who often fell ill to eat healthy and eat apple. People would ask him what Apple was and to describe it so that they can buy it in the market. My dad who also turned out to be a doctor said he didnt meet any patients who didnt know what Apple was...so yes, things change...but they take time.

I think this has to do more with the fact that Apples do not naturally grow in most of India. And I wouldn't doubt it if the whole An Apple a day was started by the US to help their agricultural exports. Westernisation of our palates has killed/reduced a lot of local foods. For example in the state of Karnataka, Wheat was unheard of a few decades ago, but now it's the primary consumed grain. Millets are making a comeback as wheat is unsustainable to grow in such an area. Responsible businesses are what we need.

AFAIK, apples originated near the Caspian Sea. That's not a tremendously long hike from India.

India is currently the #5 grower of apples worldwide at 2.2 Tg. The US is #2, with 4.1 Tg. China is #1 with 37 Tg. Apple cultivation in India is in the northernmost states Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Arunachal Pradesh.

"An apple a day keeps the doctor away" possibly originated in 1866, in Pembrokeshire, Wales, with the current phrasing stabilizing in the 1920s. Previous expressions extolling the health virtues of apples also exist, but cannot be verifiably linked to later expressions. We don't actually know whether that expression derives from a mention in Ayurvedic medicine that is 1500 years old.

If you doubt, do research. Indians have been eating apples for centuries before Americans started growing them.

It's a little more complicated than digging a hole in the ground. You have to ensure you don't poison the water table with run off or monsoons. Protect them from pests. Aerobic composting is simple when liquids are removed (urine separator and no black water). Pumping air through toilet chambers can help remove smells.

I live in the UK, and as I age, I seem to be loosing control of certain physical faculties. And we have a distinct lack of public toilets, which is ridiculous. You need toilets dotted everywhere which you are comfortable using.

In very highly populated areas using water as a transport has been somewhat miraculous. But it's not always appropriate. Recycling waste locally is probably a good idea where you can.

Night soil sounds primitive, but is pretty neat. Problems arise when raw sewage comes into contact with foods etc. Composting sewage, delays usage, but removes health risks and improves the resulting output.

I actually resent flushing my own turds down the toilet when my garden really could do with the input. But when two thirds of my water bill is for waste, you think twice about constructing alternatives.

The UK used to have public toilets. Then it had Conservatives. Councils can't fund facilities with money they no longer have. "But you can use the loo in Costa" says the Tory. Nope, not if you're homeless or poor or it's after closing time.

>> "Among other things, they contain the world's earliest known system of flush toilets." [1]

>> "With a number of courtyard houses having both a washing platform and a dedicated toilet / waste disposal hole. The toilet holes would be flushed by emptying a jar of water, drawn from the house's central well, through a clay brick pipe and into a shared brick drain" [1]

Amazing. This was about the Indus Valley Civilization in 3300–1300 BCE.

It's interesting to note that how much a civilization, like Rome after the collapse as shown in the below thread, can lose much of cultural or technical advances it made earlier.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanitation_of_the_Indus_Valley...

There are other aspects to the problem that make it more complicated. A lack of decent bathrooms has been correlated with a risk of sexual violence in India - perhaps these people are going somewhere they feel safe?

There are millions of links on this problem, here is one. https://www.google.co.nz/amp/s/tribune.com.pk/story/1265016/...

You are thinking of the problem in a sciencey, evidence based way. In particular for illiterate, uneducated people there is often a huge weight given to superstition and traditional/existing ways of doing things even in the face of evidence.

It is a surprisingly hard nut to crack, sometimes even among literate educated people. If it weren't a lot of religious extremism and bigotry would not exist.

The problem is that is a billion people, and they aren't the only ones who live next to that river. It's the people upstream who are also defecating into the river that are likely causing them to get sick. And digging a hole in the field for the village to go in can be a bad idea because that area becomes a breeding ground for all kinds of bad stuff. This isn't like when you went camping and pooped in the bushes one time. This is millions of people, every day, for decades. The waste builds up unless it's taken care of, and putting your waste into the river where it will be washed away starts to look like a viable strategy. Maybe these people aren't as dumb as you think, they just live in a very different environment and didn't have your education.

You're right - in this case technology is not the solution. Building a simple outhouse is not that complicated and people in other parts of the world have been doing this for millennia.

This sounds like part of the bigger problems of literacy and education.

Solve those, and the toilet problem will disappear by itself.

There are many things that are unbelievable you would be surprised, POTUS and many educated Americans not believing in Climate change. believing that they are waging a war on terror, religious/racial discrimination existing in modern society.

There are a non trivial number of people who believe the earth is flat.

And these aren't Indians from a rural indian village.

A few thousand loonies on the Internet believing something weird but harmless doesn't weigh up to millions of Indians pooping on the street

Don't need much in the way of sewer pipes. I live in the US, in NY, 70 miles north of Wall Street, in a house with two bathtubs, four sinks, three toilets, one washing machine, and one dish washer, with nearly no use of "sewer pipes". Right, no city sewer. Instead there is some PVC pipe, cheap, super simple to work with, darned rugged, and, presto, bingo, a big concrete box in the ground just behind the main piece of big, white PVC pipe. That box is the septic tank. It's been working great, with essentially zero maintenance, for 20+ years.

So, all the water used in the house, from the toilets, sinks, etc. is collected via PVC pipe and fed into the septic tank. The water from the septic tank flows into a "drain field" in the back yard.

Works great.

With the septic tank, there was only one problem only once: I had an infection on the edge of the nail on my left big toe and daily applied triple antibiotic cream (eventually cleared up the infection). Soon I had water, etc. bubbling up near the back of the back yard.

Why? The antibiotic cream was powerful stuff; some of it got on my socks; when I washed the socks in the washing machine, some of the cream got into the septic tank and basically killed off the crucial bacteria that was eating everything not just H2O (right, and creating CO2 and methane which bubbled out, rarely noticeable).

Solution? Sure, the grocery store sells a box of little, dry granules. So, flush about half of the box down any one of the toilets. Then the bacteria in the septic tank are alive and working again; the spot in the backyard dried up again, and no more problems!

Just need a septic tank, a little PVC pipe, and no sewer pipe or sewer treatment plant, etc.

For water, nope, I get nothing from the city. Instead I have a well. Well, the septic tank is in the back yard and the well, in the front yard -- not sure that makes much difference since the well is deep enough, likely 100+ feet, not to use "surface water".

So, how do I get "pure water"? Hmm. Running out of a faucet or standing in a glass, the water looks fine. Eventually discover that the water is saturated with calcium carbonate, that is, limestone, if you will, marble. Why? Down there, maybe 100 feet, where the water comes from, there are some old, dead sea shells, however many hundreds of millions of years old.

Otherwise I have a filter in the line: The filter is a tube about one foot long and 3 inches in diameter and made from some kind of foam or a lot of string wrapped tightly. My hardware store sells these for not very much, and they have several varieties that filter out everything down to some number of microns, different number for different varieties. One filter lasts for over a year.

No evidence of disease in or from the water.

Yes, the calcium carbonate ruined the dishwasher, so I wash dishes in the sink and dry them a traditional dish drain rack. I have the rack on a plastic base designed for that purpose, tilted, and set in an aluminum tray to catch the runoff water.

So, after some months I can notice that, while the dishes dry nicely and look just squeaky clean, from all the water that ran into the aluminum tray and evaporated, some mud was left behind. So, the water seems to have calcium carbonate plus some additional dissolved solids that, after enough water has evaporated, look like mud. Or for all I know, the "mud" is left over dish detergent? Naw, I suspect the mud is dissolved solids. Maybe if I used a finer filter I would get less mud, but I doubt it.

But the mud is doing me no harm. The usual remark from the local plumbers is that the water is safe to drink, won't hurt you.

On the calcium carbonate in the water, yes I could use a water softener. Actually, I have one. To use it, have to buy big bags, maybe 40 pounds each, of rock salt, that is NaCl. The softener takes the water and converts the calcium carbonate to calcium chloride which is more soluable (doesn't settle out on hot water pipes), doesn't create the scum with old style soap does with calcium carbonate, and feels soapy or slippery in the water. For the chloride in the calcium chloride, that comes from the salt, the NaCl. For the carbonate from the calcium carbonate, that goes out the drain as sodium carbonate. The water softener has a big barrel with ion exchange resins, little beads that, when flushed with water with a high concentration of NaCl, grab some of the Cl. Then when flushed with water with calcium carbonate grab the carbonate and replace it with the chloride, thus converting the incoming calcium carbonate to calcium chloride. But the big tank with the beads gave trouble; I paid to have the tank serviced, etc. And the automatic unit with that tank that flushed the beads with salt water, from the big barrel of salt from the big bags of salt, gave trouble. So, I pushed a big red button that had the water bypass the softener and unplugged the softener control unit from the wall A/C power. So much for the water softener.

Also, it does appear that calcium chloride from the softener can corrode the solder used in the copper pipes -- bummer.

For the calcium carbonate, it is a curious chemical since hot water dissolves less of it than cold water, the opposite of most solids. So, when the water is heated in the hot water coils of my furnace [here I'm talking about the coils for the domestic hot water and not the hot water for heating the house], the calcium carbonate settles out on the inside of the coils and after six months or so lowers the flow rate of the domestic hot water.

So, I went shopping and got a length of copper water pipe, the tools to work with copper water pipe, some shutoff valves, some faucet valves, some connection fittings, some lengths of garden hose with fittings and intended as supply and drain hoses for a washing machine, a drill pump with connections for garden hoses, some plastic cups, a plastic bucket, a gallon bottle of muriatic acid, and a big, several pound size, bag of baking soda.

So, I used the tools and the copper pipe to install the faucet and shutoff valves at appropriate places in the copper pipes leading to and from the domestic hot water coils of the furnace and attached garden hoses to the faucet valves. Then one of the garden hoses goes to one side of the drill pump, and a hose from the pump and another hose from the faucets go to the bucket.

So, using the valves, I run some water into the bucket, nearly fill the bucket. Using an old 1/4" electric drill, I turn on the drill pump and get water flowing from the bucket, into the coils, and back to the bucket. I put one of the little copper pipe fittings, a right angle elbow, in the bucket.

Then I pour about 4 ounces of the muriatic acid into one of the plastic cups, maybe the same cups apparently so popular at college frat parties or on Spring Break, and pour that acid into the bucket. Soon I get, sure CO2 bubbles in the bucket. Also, right, review high school chemistry, I get some calcium chloride in the bucket. Why? Secret: Muriatic acid is hydrochloric acid, that is, HCl, about 28%. In the residential construction industry, the acid is commonly used to remove, right, lime from concrete off bricks. It also nearly instantly removes lime from the inside of copper pipes.

When the rate of the bubbles slows down, I add another 4 ounces of muriatic acid to the water and observe that the rate of bubbles does not increase again. Guess: All the calcium carbonate is out of the copper pipes. Then I add maybe one teaspoon of the baking soda to the water and observe that I get bubbles: Guess: There is still plenty of hydrochloric acid in the water. So, conclusion: The domestic hot water pipes in the furnace are clean.

Then I turn off the drill pump, place the ends of the hoses that were in the bucket in a plastic tray intended for kitty litter, remove the little copper elbow from the bucket, carry the bucket to the back yard, and throw the water with the acid in a wide sweep onto the grass (I never see any effect on the grass).

I look at the little copper elbow for evidence that my use of the hydrochloric acid is corroding the copper pipe -- so far I have seen no such evidence. Actually, inside the furnace, the coil for domestic hot water is lined with Teflon so that calcium carbonate will be less likely to stick; no doubt the Teflon would also protect that pipe from the acid.

Back in the house with the bucket, I insert the hoses into the bucket again, use the valves to fill the bucket nearly full again, adjust the valves, turn on the drill pump, and get water flowing again from the bucket to the coils and back.

Then I add to the water in the bucket baking soda, about 1/2 cup at a time, until there are no more bubbles. Then I add another 1/2 cup of baking soda to the water to be more sure.

Then, doing the right things with the drill pump, valves, and hoses again, I dump the water in the bucket again, fill the bucket again, use the drill pump to circulate relatively fresh water, turn off the drill pump, set the valves back for ordinary use, and again dump out the water in the bucket.

At the kitchen sink, I let the hot water run for a while to be more sure I've removed all the hydrochloric acid or baking soda from the water, and declare the project done -- lots of hot water flow rate now for months!

Of course, I don't have a wife and six daughters in the house with each of them each day taking three baths, washing six changes of clothes, and washing their hair!

But, still, I have no city water, no city sewer, no sewer pipe, and no big problems.

Sure, when my startup is successful, I will look into getting, say, reverse osmosis to give me domestic hot/cold water that is much closer to pure, distilled water, that is, just good, old H2O and nothing else.

But for India, in a place rural enough to permit the women to walk to the woods at night and use the woods as a toilet, septic tanks and wells should be a really big step up and solution to the problem.

About India, I've long suspected that such really bad aspects of their living conditions have been so common, even standard, for so long that they have long since just accepted that living like that is okay with little or no desire or effort to do anything about it.

As a (now former) wastewater engineer, I'd take sanitary sewers over septic tanks anyday.

With septic tanks you run into many more maintenance issues with things like clogging, overflowing, cleaning, etc. Not to mention this cost is borne onto the homeowner and not the municipality.

There's also persistent groundwater issues. Even if you have good soil permeability and aren't impacting an aquifer, multiple septic systems can really start causing environmental harm on surrounding waterbodies.

For many people, having sewerage isn't an option, but there's a good reason many municipalities are investing millions into moving their residents off of septic systems.

> As a (now former) wastewater engineer

When I was in grad school, my office was across the hall from Abel Wolman.

You can eliminate the mud by adding a settling tank for the well water. Water flows from the well to the settling tank, where it sets awhile as the mud settles out. Frome there it goes to general distribution. Put a small plug at the bottom of the settling tank for flushing the mud out periodically and a vent or a valve at the top of the tank to drain off gases that are in the well water.

What gases? Glad you asked!

Mostly natural gas that is in the water. This is especially important for people with a water well who live in an area where fracking is done. w/o the settling tank you may find that your faucet, while open, can sustain a significant flame.

I wonder whether your setup could be made to work with a higher population density?

Probably not much higher without some significant changes.

But the main idea of a septic tank is to have the bacteria eat everything objectionable, give off CO2 and methane, leave a little sludge (after 20+ years, I've never had the septic tank cleaned), and those are also the main ideas for sewage treatment if have big sewer pipes, bring all that stuff to a central location, and treat it there.

As far as I can tell, what runs into the drain field in my backyard is just harmless. It doesn't even make the grass grow faster than elsewhere. The back boundary of my backyard is a small stream; it only has water flow from melted snow or heavy rains; and I've never seen any evidence that my drain field or those of any of the neighbors generates any flow in the stream.

All the houses in my area, at least 25 square miles, have such septic tanks, and I nearly never get any whiffs of methane or anything else.

So, for your question, sure, with somewhat higher population density, just do a little more with septic tanks. Even with the population density of NYC, in the end the crucial step is some bacteria eating the rest just as in my septic tank.

The NYS building codes for houses are careful to specify what is needed for a septic system, especially about what has to be in the drain field. In some cases, suitable soil has to be trucked in as part of building a suitable drain field.

As far as I can tell, the water from my septic tank just goes into the soil just like melted snow or rain water. Maybe the best view of what, besides just pure water, my septic tank is adding to the soil is, in a word, more soil!

> But the main idea of a septic tank is to have the bacteria eat everything objectionable, [...]

Isn't that the main idea behind wastewater treatment everywhere anyway already? See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sewage_treatment and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wastewater_treatment

Also compare Tree bogs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_bog) which is about not mixing water and human waste in the first place. Human waste can go directly on a compost heap, and the rest of the water is easier to treat.

> Isn't that the main idea behind wastewater treatment everywhere anyway already?

Sure. And on this point I wrote:

> Even with the population density of NYC, in the end the crucial step is some bacteria eating the rest just as in my septic tank.

You realise the population of India is 1.3 billion? In a land mass that is 1/3rd the size of the United States. So while it's pretty cool what you've done, septic systems are never going to be practical for India's needs.

Let's see:

There are 640 acres per square mile. In the 25 or so square miles around where I live, there are maybe 4 people per house with one house per acre for

     4 * 640 = 2,560
people per square mile.

The land area of the US is about 3.797 million square miles. Since the land area of India is 1/3rd of that, the land area of India is about

     3.797/3 = 1.266
million square miles.

Since the population of India is 1.3 billion people, the population density in India is about

  1.3 * 10**9 /
  (1.266 * 10**6)
  = 1,027
persons per square mile.

That would be the population density everywhere in India if the density were uniform. In that case, septic tanks would work for all of India much like they work for all the people within a few miles of me.

But likely the population density of India is not uniform which means that some areas of India have population density less than

persons per square mile, and in those areas, and likely more up to a density of about

persons per square mile, again septic tanks and drain fields should work well.

For people in India who walk out at night to use the woods as a toilet, as in the OP, then if only from the woods there should be land area for those people to use septic tanks.

I'm not suggesting septic tanks for Mumbai or New York City.

Hmm .... On second thought, given my view of New York City, maybe I'd like to see everyone there using septic tanks, especially all using the same tank, a small one!

Naw, then too many of them would want to live in my neighborhood -- no thanks; I like my current neighbors!

Why are you putting every other word in italics?

Italics are for definitions, for words used with some meaning other than the standard dictionary meaning, or for a common phrase essentially quoted but without a specific source and not proposed by me to be taken at face value. So, in each case the italics are to permit my being more clear about just what I am saying.

> It showed a Indians in a tiny village who were falling ill because they were literally taking a shit in the same river that they were getting their drinking water from, just a few meters away.

Take the western media's portrayal of India's poverty with a little grain of salt. India is very poor and I lived in a village where people use to shit in open but then there is something like "poverty porn" that western media often engages in to get more eyeballs.

In rural areas open shitting has its own unwritten rules. You shit far from water sources, temples and other places where people gather. You shit away from water wells. Sick people shit in a separate area.

People do shit at riverside because easy availability of water but it is essentially tragedy of commons issue and it was very common to beatup people who took a dump near potable water sources.

It's not just India.

They do it for countries ranging from Russia to China to Japan/Korea. The spin - not surprisingly - often matches whatever the current US geopolitical stance is at that point.

Two of the most forward thinking folks I believe are Bill Gates and Elon Musk. While Elon wants to carve way into science fiction, Bill wants to ensure no one gets left behind. Exciting time to be alive.

In this case big kudos goes to Narendra Modi and the Indian govt to ensure this happens. I believe such fundamental things are the most effective when govt pushes for it rather than individuals.

Two internet celebrities I follow (John and Hank Green) call those two approaches to making the world better "decreasing worldsuck" and "increasing awesome", and I really like that model of thinking. Obviously there are a lot of awesome things we can be doing in the world, but we can't let society leave people behind either.

Did you just translate the grandparent comment into silicon-valley-speak? It means the same thing, but sounds so much more marketable :)

Well one of the brothers lives in Montana and the other in Indiana, so if it's SV-speak it's just because they're both big nerds.

To be sure, it is a combined effort. The part I really like about this is that they are really serious about solving the problem and are thinking outside the box in many situations. If it was a purely government directive, I don't think it would have made much difference.

But yes, it does help immensely when the country's leader declares it as a top priority.

I like to put it this way. Elon Musk is working on the cutting edge (make new tech), Bill Gates on the spine edge (make existing tech available to everyone).

You need both for humanity to progress.

You can't carve away at science fiction without the human capital to do the science. Lifting huge populations out of disease and poverty is going to have a larger effect on scientific progress than spending money on directing the few who can do science right now.

I think you were a bit too negative but I don't agree with your downvotes.

Back to the topic: I agree with you. I think people underestimate, especially in the current Trumpist/Brexitist/etc. climate, the long term impact that lifting ~4 billion people out of poverty will have. By 4 billion people I mean China, India, Africa.

China's probably 20 years away from having 30% of the world's middle class in their country. India will probably follow the same trajectory, only with a 40 year delay. Africa is lagging but even there things seem to be moving and my money's on things accelerating as soon as they get some strong regional poles. Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia seem strong contenders.

I don't see my comment as negative. Both are good, but one is going to have an order of magnitude larger effect on scientific progress than the other.

To say that the effect of Gates's work will be to merely bring more people along for the ride instead of getting left behind as the original commenter stated is not understanding the full effect of his work. Gates is accelerating the ride.

Do you really think we don't have the human capital to do science? From what I can see, it's more that we have a shortage of plain old capital, and there are plenty of would-be scientists who take jobs in Wall St or at Twitter clones because there's no money for the science.

You only need one person if your bar is merely to "do science," but if you want to do more science, you need more people. Do you really think that if we increased the number of people who could be scientists by 10X that scientific advancement wouldn't significantly increase in velocity? Just look at how primitive modern medicine still is.

Where is the money for this 10x increase?

From the GDP lift caused by lifting large populations out of disease and poverty.

Thought experiment: how fast do you think our scientific knowledge would advance if 90% of the US were living in poverty and spent most of their day simply figuring out how to survive?

Sure, but the only way to lift large numbers of people out of poverty is growth. That's not something you can do by fiat.

You can't do it by fiat, but you can do it by redirecting funds to things that have larger impact on solving disease and poverty, which is what Gates is doing. At the end of WW2, ROK was one of the poorest countries in the world with one of the lowest rates of literacy. Now it produces a large portion of the world's consumer electronics and has top quality research centers, in spite of never solving government corruption that whole time. This is mainly due to how well war reparations from Japan and aid from elsewhere were used to develop the country.

I agree with the sentiment and some aspects of science, like medical trials, may scale fairly well.

However the most significant scientific discoveries seem to come from the top of the pile. You need to be in the right place and time with the right background to make the right connections that reveal a previously hidden truth.

Science is about seeing something that's staring you in the face but nobody has even noticed before. That generally can't be farmed out.

So it's a long road from poverty to understanding to discovering something really new.

Even finding many major breakthroughs like the blue LED is ultimately just probability. The more people who are able to find them, the more breakthroughs you will find.

I don't know if you are right or not, and I think it is hard to measure. I certainly think you don't deserve downvotes for your otherwise positive message though.

Who is Narendra Modi?

Edit:- read the article.thanks...

Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India. He has a very interesting (and controversial) history. He grew up selling tea at a railway station and now he's Prime Minister of the largest democracy.


> He has a very interesting (and controversial) history

Sure does. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2002_Gujarat_riots

From the wikipedia entry you quoted:

>> "In 2012, Modi was cleared of complicity in the violence by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court of India. The SIT also rejected claims that the state government had not done enough to prevent the riots."

>> "In April 2014, the Supreme Court expressed satisfaction over the SIT's investigations in nine cases related to the violence, and rejected as "baseless" a plea contesting the SIT report."

India's Prime Minister

Frankly I'd take Steve Jobs over those two.

People who want to do "good" to boost their (and their nations') egos are rather dangerous. When you fight a war for "righteousness" rather than greed, you're one awful enemy to have.

Then again, Steve was a Zen student. No surprises there.

World would not have been much different without appleII and iPods. All Steve did was produce products for rich. Not something like RMS who founded free software movement and changed the direction of software industry for the good of humanity.

It's outlined in the article, but I think it's worth saying again: the most difficult part of what they're doing seems to be getting people to change their habits.

It's the same psychology involved in pollution and climate change. Because people don't see an immediate reaction to for instance plastic-pollution, it's harder to get them to understand the serious effects that it is having.

Yeah they're doing great work but I've actually met people who told us they didn't want to use the toilets because they couldn't "build up the pressure" in the cramped space since they are used to the open fields since decades.

This is going to take a long time but they're actually doing a pretty good job at installing toilets that's for sure.

I wonder: has anybody tried building a squat toilet that is out in the open without any walls around it?

That might help with some of the habit changes required. Just give people exactly what they are asking for.

> build up the pressure

That's true for modern humans too -- without the phone, they can't build up the pressure.

I get what you are saying, but a turd on the ground is pretty immediate. :P

Spoken like someone who hasn't spent a lot of time in India ;)

Well that is true, but the effects that turd has on drinking water and overall health isn't quite as obvious.

isn't it, I mean it lets off a strong order to warn us. Are there people in the world who don't realize that poo is bad for you?

The reason toilets don't get used even when available in India is that Indian version of toilets are not very maintainable. First every one needs to get water from somewhere and carry it all the way with them to toilet. If water turns out not to be enough then toilet retains the waste, start becoming smelly and unhygienic. Also because of extensive water use, its unpleasant place to walk around. Toilets with flushing system uses 1950s mechanical system and often breaks down easily or gets plugged easily with no way to unplug it unless maintainer comes around (who often doesn't exist).

So the basic problem is Indian toilet tech and the whole process has not been evolved. In Western world and especially places like Japan, there are lots of people working on innovations in this area and things keep improving. In India, this area is considered to be assigned to lowest members of social cast system and thinking about it or working on it by intellectuals is considered taboo.

Why can't they use outhouses? They're just holes in the ground (very little maintenance, no requirement for plumbing) and far better than shitting out in the open or in a potable water source.

Outhouses fill up very quickly with lots of people using them. You need regular service with someone picking up the shit. Exactly like Port-a-Johns, really.

This village in India is the cleanest village in asia, sharing one article: http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160606-the-cleanest-villag...

The article talks about various people contributing to the regular cleaning. I think one solution to the developing job/motivation crisis is some sort of Civilian Conservation Corps providing a base wage to people in exchange for a few hours each week of easy, non-essential work contributing to the general decency of a locale. Pruning, sweeping an area, weeding a verge, removing litter from a roadside. The sort of work you see gardeners doing at dawn throughout Asia, especially in resorts.

There could be many older men for example keen to have a sense of purpose, doing a task they're capable of and staying active, rather than putting in 40+ hours/week at a desk.

This is cool. Apparently it's been ingrained in their culture, and for over a hundred years!

There's also a official city ranking - https://gramener.com/swachhbharat/

I recall seeing a video of a property owner who has a piece of land with a long, approx 2.5 meter height wall facing a street in a suburb of Delhi. He had a significant problem with the wall becoming an unofficial "designated pissing wall" and the whole place reeked of urine. Problem was solved by first power washing the wall and then hiring a few local mural painters to paint images of various Hindu gods (Hanuman, Ganesh, etc) on the wall. No more pissing problem.

Based on my walk to work along Mission street, I'd say we've got something to learn X_x

seriously, i exit at Powell station and the amount of shit and piss i smell every day is unimaginable.

Glad this initiative is working. The Indian govt emphasizes on this very frequently and I am surprised to see this dashboard: http://sbm.gov.in/sbmdashboard/Default.aspx

Hah; my workplace has a firewall rule for connections to India. Seems bizarre.

I hope that all these toilets being built are actually being used, serviced and maintained by the people of the community. I have seen TV reports where these toilets were being built to achieve targets and end up being either filthy because no one maintained them, or used as storage(?). This, along with a massive awareness drive(the govt has some ads running on tv) to push people towards using these toilets. Many challenges ahead, and I can only hope for the best for the motherland.

Unfortunately your fears are not unfounded. I have been to a village which is supposed to be model village for the constituency (adopted by the ruling party legislator). Open defecation has not reduced significantly. The toilets built are in a deplorable state and if people are not using them it is understandable. I think the public is also to be blamed for this but if the legislator can't introduce/inculcate mindset change in just one model village in their constituency it is not encouraging.

This has nothing to do with building toilets. Its with education. The northern parts of India has very low literacy rate. High literacy + HDI states like Kerala and Meghalaya was already clean. The dashboard of 2014 data proves that.

If you don't have a toilet, how does learning how to read help you not poop in the open?

Because learning makes people less stupid in our part of the world.

They literally don't have a toilet. Are they going to conjure one if they become smart enough? I understand there's an issue of people not using them once they have one, but step one is getting a toilet, and step two is educating people enough to want to use them.

I'm not so sure. Step 1 is making sure people want a toilet. If you give someone a toilet without their understanding its purpose, it is going to be neglected and considered pointless.

If people want toilets, they can spend some free time to dig a big pit in a nearby yard, and it will be more sanitary than their current situation. Ultimately the two go hand in hand (toilets and education) but education without toilets is a problem that solves itself, while toilets without education is doomed to fail.

Well, that's not the goal they're talking about: "There are two keys to achieving the targets of Clean India. One involves giving everyone access to a well-managed toilet, which means all the waste is treated (either on-site or in a treatment facility) to remove the pathogens that make people sick. It’s crucial to get the entire process right, from containing the waste in a toilet to collecting it, transporting it if necessary, and treating it. If one link in the chain fails, people still get sick."

Anyway, the original comment here, "this has nothing to do with toilets", still doesn't make sense. High literacy states aren't clean because of education, they are clean and educated because they aren't poor. And we all agree that education and toilets go hand in hand, the article addresses this. All I was responding to was the idea that toilets are irrelevant, which is ridiculous.

> They literally don't have a toilet. Are they going to conjure one if they become smart enough?

Yes, exactly! Do you know what "smart" (or rather, appropriately educated, which higher literacy helps) people can do? They can build things. They can design systems more complex than the default "shit -> river" and execute them. And have them working for years.

So yes, education is the problem. There are many DIY solutions people could use for themselves, on a small, local scale, if they had access to the information on how to do them. On a larger scale, say of a village, there are many infrastructural projects which could be done with just several people and a bit of knowledge. And everything above that is what governments specialize in.

Giving people toilets will solve nothing. Even if they will use them for a bit, they will shortly turn into smelly shitholes, worse than outdoors by far.

Instead, if they build the toilets themselves, there is a higher chance for them to maintain them. And they could be building their own toilets right now if not for illiteracy and lack of any education.

I know there are other problems: economical situation, ingrained traditions and so on. But education is the only way of battling these problems as well.

Can we all just agree that the approach they're taking seems to be working pretty well? Maybe it would be faster to educate everyone enough to build their own waste treatment and transport facilities. I think that's unlikely, but I guess we'll never know. I also think it would be difficult for a poor village to reach that level of education when people keep dying from waste-related diseases.

Wow very proud of my state Kerala which looks the cleanest. Kerala always stands out from rest of the India in all positive aspects.

India is Winning Its War on Human Waste!!!

... unfortunately San Francisco is losing that same war.

Or you could be intentionally exaggerating the problem by about 100 fold.

Perhaps you'd like to show me the stats that indicate a million people (or even how about 2.5% - ~100k people) in the San Francisco metro area have begun shitting in the streets, in their drinking water, etc.

Or we could explore the possibility that the acceptable amount of human feces on the streets of a major city in a first world country is none.

You can't reliably tell the difference between human and other omnivore feces, and there are always going to be coyotes pooping wherever they please.

Gotta accept a bit of poop in your life.

There's not a lot of coyotes in downtown SF...


> Record numbers of coyotes have moved into the city in recent years.

haven't been to India but anecdotally the amount of public defecation between DT SF and rural China is about the same - ie. quite rare in practice but brought up ad nauseam in online discussions, often to serve a political point.

on the other hand the only times I've managed to step in human feces is DT SF and DT Vancouver..

It's a joke.

I don't really come to this site for jokes. I come for the intellectual stimulation. If a stimulating post is entertaining that's great, but the post above wasn't stimulating in my opinion. I have no idea what they were referencing when they implied San Francisco is having a sewage problem because they gave no citations or statistics. They just posted something for an emotional response to gain upvotes, which is not good for this site in my opinion.

I thought it was funny. Does that make it okay? Or do you use this site the "right" way?

Archived copy, which can be read without JS enabled:


Only 1.7 million people die from unsafe water? That's a lot less than I thought. It's still a awful and fixable issue but not as bad as I thought.

I'm sure a much larger number get seriously ill, but don't die, so the potential for quality of life improvement is even bigger.

That's per year. It seems like an awfully high number to me. To contrast, something like 2.5M Americans are dying in total from all causes every year.

This is probably the single best way to reduce rape in India as well. I remember in one Indian tv serial episode, the plot was a woman who refused to marry a man (in a village) until he got indoor plumbing in the house so she didn't have to go to a field at night to use the bathroom.

India was one of the first countries in the world to emphasize regular bathing -- this was thousands of years ago, even the kings among the Europeans started bathing daily fewer than 300 years ago. We need to get hygiene country-wide to the world standards it created.

Heh, I think Gates might have inadvertently DDoS'd the dashboard detailing toilet coverage in Rural India. I won't post the link here but its at the end of the article.

I have had and have two issues in my village especially for poor.

1. Keeping the toilet in home, this is no issue(99% of my village is fine with it)but having exhaust and running it is still an issue 2. Running water with pipe , if you ask a must if you need good toilet. A big issue for 6 months in our village so able people built storage tank , pump up water when water comes in pipe from village tank but for the ones who keep in vessels , it is big issue 3. Space for septic tank, in many plots house is built on full land available to them so no more space for septic tank 4. Last but not least, if you have issue septic there is not a possibility to clean like in city using that special lorry that come with pump and tank

If govt can do something about 2/3/4 then it is possible to have more toilets.

I'd say take this data with a healthy pinch of salt. I have friends currently working in conjunction with the Health and Sanitation department who say that the ground reality is very different.

As someone else noted in another thread, toilet maintenance and water availability continue to remain a very real problem.

The dashboard data reflects only the number of new toilets being built (and their corresponding 'expected' coverage). This doesn't take into account how many of them are actually being used as toilets.

In some districts in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, less than 1 out of 15 households actually use the newly built toilets. Elsewhere, they have already been converted into mini-grocery stores and storage facilities. All these instances are being conveniently ignored.

I guess I'm confused as to why this is only a problem for women and girls. Are there toilets that the men use that they don't let the women use? Or is it that Indian men don't have a problem with themselves defecating anywhere?

Mostly because open defacting creates other issues for women, like sexual harrasment, rape etc.

It's worth to note that to fund the Swachh Bharat mission business in India are contributing 0.5% towards it via service tax on every bill. It's a collective effort of public-govt-private partnership.

The Ethiopian countryside along main roads (Oromia and south of there) seems to also have acquired a lot of public toilets in the last 5 years.

then finally its happening? once we heard that India has more phone users than toilet users.

Wait, did Bill Gates really go out to the train tracks in India and film people pooping?

The thing that strikes me as the most odd - is that until ww1 (thats right the recent Battlefieldified one)- soldiers would carry talismans into the battle, that where supposed to make them bulletproof and immortal. Thats right, something that sounds oh, so exotic, right in the midst of the west.

Also, it helps if you look at the Congo and Europe during WW2. The same chaos, the same refugee rows, the same anarchy and murdering. Noting is written in stone.

We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14205839 and marked it off-topic.

That doesn't sound so odd? I bet quite a few modern soldiers still have some talismans or lucky charms.

I imagine prayer is quite common in the military, as one example.

If someone's shooting at you, you're going to make damn sure you take every measure possible to not get shot.

There are no atheists in foxholes.

I don't get that phrase. I've been in a bunch of life-and-death situations and not once have I felt a sudden alteration in my religious views. I have to wonder whether it's an expression of anxiety on the part of the speaker rather than any sort of objective observation.

However being in a foxhole is an entirely artificial situation, and people in foxholes aren't known for their long-range planning and forethought. If you're being shelled, you're not going to be thinking about whether you can service a new mortgage and whether you should refinance, for example.

I wonder, if you put a mathematician specializing in statistics into a foxhole, what are the odds he becomes a believer?

> There are no atheists in foxholes.

This is just a thing that people say that doesn't stand up to even cursory scrutiny.

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