A toilet is for life – or why sustainability matters

For toilet aficionados like us, there’s nothing more tragic than the sight of a tapstand in disrepair or a toilet in disuse. We’re determined not to let this happen…

Picture the scene. A line of abandoned loos, busy only with flies. Close by, a cluster of children relieve themselves in the open air.

Sadly, it happens… but only when toilet-building statistics take priority over sustainability.

It happens when a team in a 4 x 4 sweeps in, builds loos, drills a borehole perhaps, and speeds off again straight after the obligatory handover photos. A month later, the new latrines are filthy, and people go back to relieving themselves outside.

We want to ensure that every toilet or tapstand we install is still being used and properly maintained a year later… and into perpetuity.

As our water and sanitation adviser, Frank Greaves, says, ‘No one refuses a new latrine for their household.’ But, unless people really grasp the life-transforming impact of proper sanitation, clean water and simple things like handwashing with soap, projects are money down the drain. Not on our watch…

Sustainability has two key ingredients: buy-in and behaviour change. In other words, if people realise the importance of proper sanitation for themselves in the first place and are willing to invest in it, good hygiene habits are likely to stick.

One key tool our partners use to help ‘trigger’ a desire for toilets is the gloriously named ‘defecation walk’.

Essentially, they invite villagers to walk with them around the community and point out the places where they relieve themselves. Through gentle questioning, they help people see the health risks for themselves, as Frank Greaves explains.

‘It’s not about blaming or embarrassing people or telling them what to do: it’s simply about facilitating a process through which people are encouraged to reflect on their own (and their communal) sanitation behaviour: disgust, revulsion, even shock, all play a part.

‘If the process is facilitated well, a real desire for change takes root. Sometimes, pointing out the simple fact that their children play very near a place where people defecate is enough to trigger the change.’

Susan has learnt about handwashing at school

The importance of sustainability is all too clear for our Ugandan partner, North Kigezi and Kinkiizi Dioceses (NKKD), which works in some of the poorest villages in the impoverished south-west of the country.

Previous state-led sanitation projects in Uganda have failed: latrines quickly fell into disuse because there was no local ownership. Child mortality linked to poor sanitation remains high.

So NKKD has refocused its work to make sustainability a priority – by placing a strong emphasis on local buy-in.

Its approach is to identify families who are particularly receptive to their sanitation and hygiene messages, and to equip them to lead by example. So their houses become ‘demonstration homes’ with a proper latrine, clothes lines, dish-drying rack, handwashing tippy tap and bins – so that these families can model good hygiene to their neighbours.

In one village, Kabirago, the number of toilets has almost doubled since NKKD began work there. Now three-quarters of households have their own toilet.

It also harnesses ‘pester power’: installing toilets and tippy-taps in school and teaching children about handwashing with soap so they will nag their parents to have the same facilities at home.

Marius (right) with the headteacher of a school where NKKD has built toilets

Creating a sense of ownership is vital if the community goes on to install shared facilities since these too must be properly maintained. So in any community project -– whether it’s a gravity flow pipeline or a school toilet block – NKKD insists that even the poorest of local communities contribute 15 per cent of the cost, either in cash or labour.

As NKKD Sustainability Mobiliser Marius Katanguka says: ‘Before, there would be breakages and nobody would be able to take care of them or nobody would be concerned.’

NKKD also works hard to ensure behaviour change is long term. In some communities it has encouraged people to draw up local by-laws relating to sanitation and it makes regular return visits to families to help embed good habits.

And all this matters of course because, as Marius says, it’s the cumulative benefits of long-term use of proper sanitation and clean water that give families the best chance of breaking out of poverty.

‘In the long term, [people’s] economic status [will improve] because the money that used to be spent in hospital is going to be saved to improve on their livelihoods,’ says Marius.