Can Better Toilets and Latrines Solve the World’s Sanitation Problem?

Diverse Partners Work to Build a Booming Toilet Business in Ethiopia
Nov 3, 2015 10:10 AM ET

"Excuse me. May I use your toilet?”

Despite my not being a paying customer, the restaurant owner directed me toward a doorway at the back of the building. Through the doorway, a woman shucking corn pointed me towards a tarp draped over a piece of wire, less than 20 feet away. I pulled back the ripped tarp to find the toilet—a hole in the ground swarming with flies.

This is what the development community calls “unimproved sanitation,” but what for 71 million Ethiopians  is simply “the toilet.” I had just spent the past three days visiting sanitation projects as part of an assessment of global pro bono support for health initiatives worldwide, and had seen both rundown and brand new sanitation solutions. This particular toilet was not one of the site visits on our schedule. I just really had to pee.

Far too often, development professionals sanitize the discussion of toilets and excrement, using industry jargon—like “sanitation”—to euphemize a messy topic. But as I braced myself and lowered myself over the hole, my feet sinking into what I feared was a mix of mud and feces, I realized just what a tricky (and icky) business sanitation can be. My heart raced as I peered through the holes in the tarp, wondering who might be able to see me. I briefly considered standing up to search for a better option—the side of the road, which had previously seemed unreasonable, now seemed preferable. But I had already been holding it for far too long. It was now…or…now.

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