From rural toilets to urban showers: questions of usage

Work this morning started with a surprise meeting with someone working on a water and sanitation initiative in the southern Ghana. My Gram Vikas days flashed in my memory as we discussed toilet jargon for a bit – twin-pit pour flush household latrines – and more about maintenance funds and financing schemes for further expansion. It was striking how similar different wat-san programs could be.

  • Management issues
    • Maintenance funds were being collected, but not utilised and in the first place, there wasn’t good data on who pays and how regularly. The community mobilisers now wanted to use these funds as sources of capital for small loans to the community or to be used as collateral to leverage bigger bank loans.
    • The community wat-san committees were not strong enough and one needed to rethink its composition and functions in order to improve its effectiveness. 
  • Design issues
    • Communities in the Ghana program didn’t like communal toilets since those were far away from where the houses were and therefore, preferred individual household toilets. Now they have encountered problems of space for toilets and are considering communal toilets for a small group of houses
    • Problems of waste disposal persist – what toilet designs work best? who will dispose the waste when the pit fills out etc  

There were a thousand more questions I would have loved to ask…some other time, probably. What was clear though was that there are numerous opportunities for these communities and programs to learn from each other, irrespective of how many miles apart they were. The essential questions of sustainable finance, participatory design and community ownership are ever so important and will remain so if new wat-san facilities were to improve the quality of lives of the users. Else, these will lie as unused (and often disgusting) symbols of an ill-conceived attempt to ‘do good’.

In any case, my day ended with a successful attempt to convince my landlady that a bathtub in a bathroom that was about 3 ft*10 ft and already had a wash-basin and a commode – would not be a good idea even if the wash-basin were pushed out of the bathroom and the commode pushed further towards the door. For one, not many in this house are known to take luxurious baths and I reasoned that there would be much more value added if we just had a slightly more spacious shower.

Although I was only one of the two present users of the bathroom and had monopolised the user-feedback channel, I am sure I have done my house-mate some good. And by heeding my feedback – that of a mere tenant – my landlady might just have made a big improvement in my quality of life here in Accra.

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