Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Happy World Toilet Day! And some reflections on mid-sized city public toilets..

Happy World Toilet Day!

A few recent news articles from the city I've done my research in - Hubli, India - provides some insight into the options that municipalities consider when deciding to upgrade public toilets. While there's been a lot of good news around development of pay-per-use, community managed public toilet blocks in slums in the mega-cities in India, there is little focus on public toilets in Tier II cities like Hubli, and also not much attention paid to toilets for public use in downtown areas. After many trips running errands at the market downtown Hubli, I can attest how hard it is to find a toilet except at (some) restaurants. The only public ones I've seen are men's urinals that is little more than a wall to stand behind.

Hubli is considering getting pay-per-use toilets that will automatically turn on lights and flush toilets. Public toilets! Except, hopefully not these ones. Though the article says these have been successful in many western countries, this has not been true in the U.S., where cities have started selling off their self-cleaning toilets en masse. Only Portland  has had success with public toilets and then only because they are designed to be unfriendly and no-frills. I can imagine how exciting introducing new technology into toilets seems, and the appeal of what's touted to be cutting-edge, self-cleaning technology; except, why don't they hear about these failures in the U.S.?

It seems other 'technology' solutions are appealing to the Hubli municipality: another news article reports that the city is considering mobile toilets or bio-toilets. While these make for some great buzz words and certainly these options could work (port-a-potties certainly work in the U.S., and eco-san has a huge fan base), all of these solutions Hubli suggest that they just need a drop of technology to solve the problem - which, as we know, is not the answer.

This brings up a good point: after seeing some of the municipality working in a city like Hubli, it seems sources of information and knowledge to help cities plan for elements of water and sanitation are sparse.  Where would a mid-sized city like Hubli find out about options for providing public toilets, using examples from elsewhere in India or for similar cities across the world? Other than some WSP reports, I can't think of a good way that exists for disseminating and sharing this kind of information in a way that municipalities can easily access and understand it. Instead, they hear news reports and industry pamphlets where technologies sound alluring and attractive and include these buzz-words (bio-, automatic, portable, energy-producing), convincing cities they need these buzz-words too. How can cities and towns find out about failures as well as successes, and what won't work (not just the headlines of "San Francisco invests in self-cleaning toilets", but also the end of the story, "San Francisco sells failed toilets")? While there's great NGOs doing work around developing solutions for rural areas or off-grid slums, how can we assist municipalities, who often have the ability to reach to large populations, in planning sanitation for their cities? I think this - working with utilities and municipalities to help them make informed decisions about their sanitation systems, from collection to treatment and disposal - is one of the major challenges we've barely started to address.

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