What is the cheapest toilet in developing countries? It is a plastic bag. "Kenyans call them helicopter toilets. Tanzanians prefer flying toilets. Whatever the name, the technique is the same..." Go. Wrap. Throw.
The plastic bag is one step up from open defecation, which according to the author, is still widely practiced in India.
We live in what the author calls a `flushed and plumbed' nation. It is hard to believe that 2.6 billion people must do without a toilet--what the U.N. delicately refers to as `access to clean water.' However, we Americans shouldn't be congratulating ourselves on our bathroom habits. Really advanced countries like Japan think that toilet paper is gross. "Japanese toilets can, variously, check your blood pressure, play music, wash and dry your [back and front parts] by means of an in-toilet nozzle that sprays water and warm air, suck smelly ions from the air, switch on a light for you...put the seat lid down for you (a function known as the `marriage-saver'), and flush away your excreta without requiring anything as old-fashioned as a tank."
"The Big Necessity" is a serious book about "the unmentionable world of human waste and why it matters." Rose George, its author is by turns courageous, humorous (although she tries hard to avoid potty jokes), and indefatigable. Different chapters find her exploring the sewage disposal systems (or lack thereof) in Thailand, China, India, Africa, and even the sewers of London (37,000 miles) and New York (6,000 miles).
She also has a genius for the telling anecdote: when describing a slum family in Nehru Nagar, India she says: "They had one dim room for six people, smaller than the average American parking space..."
When struggling into a pair of `crotch-high waders' in preparation for her trip into a London sewer, she makes mention of "the online Yahoo! Sewer-boots fetish group..."
If you don't believe `waste matters' just take a look at Zimbabwe, which used to have one of the best waste disposal systems in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its sewage system was neglected by an inept government, and now over 3,000 citizens (as of 02/01/2009) have died of cholera. The same thing could happen in London or New York City. It almost did happen in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This really is an important book.
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About the reviewer
Elaine Lovitt (starmoth)
I'm a retired geek whose goal is to move to Discworld and apprentice myself to Granny Weatherwax. I have degrees in Astronomy and Computer Science, but was seduced by the Dark Side a few years before … more
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