I’ve been traveling with work again – this time in France then Norway, and via Belgium and the Netherlands. With my Waterstink hat on – and following hot on the heels of my last post (on the not entirely ‘sexy’ subject of showers) – I took photos of some mundane water stuff then pondered what it might mean from a water-related ‘research’ point of view…

Here then are just a few (more or less random) photos of toilets and a reminder for me that what I, and possibly what water sector policymakers and strategy people – in the UK – take for granted as ‘normal’ say, when thinking about water conservation in domestic homes, can be quite far from that in other countries. And this is true even when these countries are some of the UK’s closest neighbours (geographically, economically, socially and culturally).

Take, for example, this bathroom’s sanitary fittings in a hotel in Strasbourg, France:

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Photo: Sanitary wares in a hotel room in Strasbourg, France. (The silver ‘stool’, pun intended, generated much discussion as to its possible purpose(s)!)

First, similar to my points about showers in the United States, there are limits here on how much water you can save due to the single mode flush mechanism (upper left of the photo).

Second, there’s obviously a further water consuming device in this room in addition to the toilet – the bidet. You don’t often find this in the UK!

Third, the toilet pan is a different design from what is ‘normal’ in the UK. This might not affect water use per flush, but might affect the number of flushes (and I personally always think I’m going to get ‘showered’ in a covering of the toilet’s contents from this kind of design when I flush… but of course I never do):

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Photo: Close-up of the Strasbourg hotel’s toilet.

And then just a short hop away we instead find a dual mode flush design; this time in a hotel room in nearby Oslo, Norway:

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Photo: Toilet in a hotel room in Oslo, Norway. (Dual flush rocker switch visible upper-left)

But here, for my fourth point, the dual flush button is different from the segregated designs you would find in my home – and perhaps on toilets in other places around Europe. (I’ve also never seen toilet paper tied into such a pretty bow before; a novelty, no doubt!)

Fifth, moving on from the toilets to the other everday technology in this particular Oslo hotel room, the shower did have some water – and energy – conserving technology, in the form of both water flow and water temperature restrictors. Of course I’m very familiar with these (I similarly have them both at home) but this not something I frequently see in hotels at all.

Perhaps such a lack of standardisation in water/sanitation technology in Europe is not a problem. Our water utility companies are confined to sub-national or very local boundaries, probably such diversity affect water utilities’ strategies or planning that much. For national and trans-national policy and planning around water use though it is an issue.

It then becomes even more so the case when moving to global-scale interventions into particular (materially) developing countries around the world. If even regions or countries within ‘Europe’ have not settled on a single design – or even standardised the set of sanitary ware fixtures – to have in a bathroom, then it does seem fraught with problems to propose ‘single’ ‘magic bullet’ solutions for toilets around the world.

And yet this is sometimes what efforts such as the ‘reinvention of the toilet’ initiatives of the Gates Foundation risk getting close to (as do, at times, for example, USAID’s similar toilet technology programmes).

I don’t write this, of course, to criticise any efforts to develop more affordable, more sustainable, better functioning, and more universally available toilets around the world. But if this variety of practices and porcelain-ware even within a small sub-set of Europe that I saw during my recent travels is anything to go by, then surely there will doubtless be challenges in meeting everyone’s needs and cultural expectations with such ‘single design’/’single solution’ sanitation technology strategies?

Duncan Thomas

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