Toilets are our barometers

There are doubtless many metrics to measure human development. And human development is a nebulous enough concept that perhaps some of these indicators currently seem to you – and to me, at least – a little too simplistic, reductionist and overly materialistic. This may be unavoidable at present, given we’re at a quite fickle, unhappily divided point in human history…

But nevertheless I do believe that one part of such human development measures, firstly in quite blunt quantitative terms – like the UN’s SDGs and the JMP’s estimates of global access to/coverage of water and sanitation – and secondly, in a more qualitative sense, indicators referring to toilets are a good ‘barometer’ for how we plan and act towards each other in our daily lives… within our societies, and via the many institutions we have forged and spread all around our world.

Today is UN Water’s World Toilet Day. It therefore seems to me apt to reflect a little on the subject of toilets. Of course, as usual, if you want an eloquent discussion on this matter, it’s probably best to start elsewhere. For instance, please feel free to visit its official site. However, if you still feel in a mood to indulge me and my usual meanderings, stick around for a few scattered examples that will hopefully make sense by this end of this post. With this disclaimer out of the way, stick with me, and we’ll do a little toilet reflecting…!

By way of a departure, let us first travel to the town of Saltsjöbaden, some 20km East of Stockholm, Sweden. This quaint little place has an interesting past, and even an inspiring link to a city quite near and dear to me, somewhat, namely Rochdale, England (more on that below). Overall though Saltsjöbaden is a relatively ordinary place, although doubtless a wonderful location to live and raise a family… (It was deliberately constructed for, and later populated by Sweden’s wealthier middle to upper classes; it was even founded, in 1891, by banker, politician, and – no I am not kidding you here – Knight of the Order of the SeraphimKnut Agathon Wallenburg!)

In the amply picturesque setting of Saltsjöbaden, a rather fancy restroom tap happened to attract my attention. It was fixed near the reception inside a hotel by the name of Vår Gård. I was briefly staying at this hotel, last week, to attend a workshop called and hosted by the funder of some of my current research, the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (in English, the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation). Here is a very short video of this splendid faucet springing into action:

There’s a little story though, which I hope you’ll trust me does resonate with our World Toilet Day theme, about how I found myself mesmerised by – and eventually video-ing – this rather lovely tap…

Photo: Beautiful lake/sea view, a reward for my inelegant clambering over some slippery iced rocks, in search of the elusive 1844 Rochdalemonumentet…

A little excursion here though to explain that before the meeting I was trying my best not to slip into nearby watercourses (stunning beautiful watercourses they were, as you can see above). I very nearly slid off a set of very icy rocks. This was in a – sadly failed – attempt to locate the (supposedly) nearby, 1844 dated Rochdalemonumentet. This granite installation commemorates inspiration from Rochdale’s 19th century co-operative movement upon the “Swedish Model”, or, as Wikipedia describes it, the…

social democratic class compromise … industrial relations… “Saltsjöbaden spirit” … willingness to co-operate and a cross-class, collective sense of responsibility for developments in the national labour market and in the Swedish economy generally

After this fruitless but enjoyable adventure, during the meeting itself some considerable portion of my energy was expended attempting but, as seemed to be the theme of my day, again failing to relieve myself within the hotel. The building was a wonderful old villa. But, perhaps due to its age, or possibly due to bad planning during its later conversion, ‘spending a penny’ there, so to say, proved more difficult than one might imagine…

Photo: One of the moments I wasn’t trying to find an available toilet to use, inside the Var Gard hotel.

It turns out the hotel was quite lacking in toilet facilities. There were a lot of us at the meeting, and simply not enough toilets! I realise this is a (very) small problem, in the grand scheme of things, and in the world of water and sanitation more broadly. But the absence of toilets adjacent to the meeting, did in fact lead to my discovery of ‘the fancy tap’ above. So all was not lost. I wandered away from my meeting, to find somewhere to ‘do my business’, and ended up, some distance away, at this facility, nearby the hotel reception.

Moving our story along, separately, one of my colleagues – from this meeting, in fact – later travelled to Gothenburg, Sweden. From there she shared with me her discovery of some really quite remarkable public, toilet and shower ‘combo’ facilities. You can see one of them in her (very nicely composed!) picture below:

Photo: A public toilet and shower facility, located in Gothenburg, Sweden. Credit: Picture by Maria Nedeva; used with full permission.

My colleague assured me (and the rest of Instagram) that these facilities had been provided via public funding, were kept clean and hygienic, were available 24/7, and were completely free-of-charge, at the point of use. What a wonderful discovery! (And what a contrast to the Saltsjöbaden meeting, no?)

Another episode in this story has us now leaping approximately halfway around the planet… Back a few short weeks ago, with the same colleague that told me about the above Gothenburg-shower-toilets, I was in the city of San Francisco, USA.

There, perhaps ill-advisedly, and in our typical Brits-will-walk-anywhere fashion, my colleague and I had decided to stroll across from the main downtown SF train station to our meeting, which turned out to be on Market Street, slap-bang amidst the (possibly) notorious ‘tenderloin’ neighbourhood. Linking again to our toilet theme, we’d both been drinking water, partly to stave off jet lag during an epic journey across the States (more about that another time) but mostly to stay hydrated in very un-UK-like North Californian heat…

Photo: I didn’t actually feel like getting my camera out in Tenderloin itself, but this nearby SF pic has just about enough randomness in it to remind me of the general feelings I experienced there…

Given our biological need that stemmed from this scenario, do you think it was easy for us to find a safe, clean, public toilet during this walk across some rather unsavoury parts of SF?

Nope, it most definitely was not. We had a few false starts, and a little too much wandering off piste, before we finally located a far-from-ideal but at least available restroom, tucked away in a rather poorly signposted corner of a large but otherwise unremarkable private supermarket:

Photo: Reasonably well hidden restroom in a private SF supermarket. It was not particularly clean either, but this was a rather take-it-or-leave-it situation…

Of course, this was all in the 4th most populous city in California; the 13th most populous in the USA, and supposedly the highest-ranking US city for ‘quality of living’ (the 29th such city, globally). We were not in some ‘developing’ country setting, with any harrowing statistics about lack of access/coverage for sanitation infrastructure. And yet there I was again, just like in swanky Saltsjöbaden a few weeks later, struggling to find a toilet to use in my hour of need… (well, according to 2015 Ig Nobel prize winners at Atlanta, it’s more like 21 seconds of need, most of  the time!)

So, three strange examples later, what does this all mean for my ‘toilets are barometers’ theme, you are well entitled by this point to wonder?

Well, toilets generally – and I guess public toilets more specifically – are something that we can’t do without. All human beings need them everyday, and everywhere we live, work, and rest. And yet sometimes, even in the fanciest of private locations, sometimes we just can’t find one. Or if we can, they aren’t free to use. (Organisations in the UK have been mapping them nowadays, which definitely does help…)

Perhaps sometimes the problem is as simple and minor as that there just aren’t enough toilets for all the people present at a location to use conveniently.

In some parts of the world, like in Gothenburg, decisions have clearly been taken to provide toilets widely, to respect human dignity, not just to account for our ever-present necessity of relieving ourselves. Some governments, and certain organisations have worked, and will continue to work hard to make available free (or low cost), high quality, public sanitary infrastructure. Elsewhere, others have not, or simply cannot – due to lack of funds, lack of training and capacity, lack of political support, or lack of popular support.

This brings us back to the fact that it’s – just about still, as I’m now finishing up this post at about 11pm UK time! – World Toilet Day. This day – out of the hundreds of similar ‘international days of‘ awareness of one thing or another each year – we can choose to think about and act upon our views about the toilets, or lack of them, all around us.

I’d argue that when we do this we see our toilets as our barometers for how we wish to treat ourselves, and treat others. This could be at home or overseas. Thinking about our toilets might cause us to reflect on donating money to some or other national or international organisation that might help others less fortunate than ourselves to access toilets (I’m not going to list bodies here; there’s a big list of them on Wikipedia). Our toilet-related reflections may lead us to consider how and where we want our taxes spent, for the benefit of our country or for others; that’s entirely up to us…

To close though, whenever and wherever we interact with a toilet, and even when we find ourselves ‘caught short’ without one, let’s remember that whether and where we have them – and what it costs us to use them – reflects the ways we’ve chosen to organise ourselves as one humanity. Toilets are not just there to accommodate and to reflect our necessary biology.

With all of that rambling, I wish to wish you well, and even to wish you a happy World Toilet Day! (Although now I’m wondering if such salutations even fit such a Day… but then given that due to my tardy writing, there’s only about an hour left of it, at this point, I probably shouldn’t worry myself too much about it, should I…?)

Duncan Thomas

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