Sunday, January 16, 2011

Run to End the Runs Comes to a Close

· Eleven races.
· Nearly 350 miles (341.4 to be exact)
· Nine months
· In 2010 alone, over 109,000 people now have a toilet.
· FLOW data shows 91% of toilets in WFP-sponsored work in India being used and maintained after construction

The idea for the Run to End the Runs was born during a night I couldn’t sleep in Lima last February. We had just signed up for the Santiago marathon and had been training for about a month. At first I just thought we could use the Santiago race as a fundraiser for Water For People, but the” running for water“ space seemed pretty saturated as several celebrities had just summited Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise awareness and funds for the clean water crisis, and cities around the world were preparing for the Run for Water to be held in April. But, as usual, sanitation was merely a topic added on to the races and climbs for water. I get it; I know water looks prettier to photograph than poop, that it can be easier to sell and sexier to talk about the clean water challenge than the nasty sanitation problem. But I’m back to the point I first raised in April when we first started this-nobody talks about poop. And the reason all that dirty water kills kids around the world is because there is poop in it. If we could keep that dang poop out of the water in the first place…..

Enter toilets. Who would believe that when that oh-so-famous‘john’ isn’t around, countries lose billions of dollars per year in lost wages and treating illnesses (preventable ones, that is). It’s extremely important to quantify the impacts of not having a toilet, but I still think the way my friend Luisa puts it-“I like my toilet because I don’t have my neighbor’s shit floating into my kitchen” hits home a little harder. Or her neighbor, who mused that his favorite aspect of having a toilet was that his buttcheeks no longer got wet when he went to the bathroom. Who doesn’t want dry buttcheeks and a shit-free kitchen?

Unfortunately, solving this problem is not as simple as donating toilets. Governments, NGOs, volunteer groups, and others have been trying to build our way out of the problem and this just does not work. Going to the bathroom is embedded in social, cultural, religious, and many other contexts. Thousands of toilets in the Bolivian Andes are never used once they have been built because of reasons that have nothing to do with engineering. Well-meaning groups build toilets that cost more than people’s homes and are surprised when people want to use the nicest structure on their homes as ‘banks’ for their currency-potatoes, corn, or chickens.

And it’s not enough to do it once. Communities grow, some very quickly. The peri-urban areas we are working in Cochabamba have growth rates of nearly 10% per year. Giving everybody a toilet today does nothing for the thousands of people who are going to move there next year, nor those with a toilet, since if your neighbor is still pooping in his yard, chances are you’re still going to be smelling it, your kid might be playing in it at their house, and it most likely will still make its way into the food you eat or drink.

So what we are trying to do at Water For People is make sure everybody can get the toilet they want, not the toilet that somebody else thinks they should have, and that their future next door neighbors can also get a toilet. That looks different from Kolkata (India) to Cuchumuela (Bolivia). In India, where the rural areas outside of Kolkata are denser than the peri-urban zones in Bolivia, Water For People has worked with local self-help groups to add micro-loans for toilets to their products. In Bolivia, one way we are trying to do that is by entering into alliance with Habitat For Humanity who is offering loans for toilets alongside their home loans, and as a separate product. Water For People-Malawi is working with entrepreneurs from other sectors in the unplanned settlements outside of Blantyre to see how the entrepreneurs envision incorporating sanitation products and services into their existing small businesses. We’re experimenting in rural areas with uncovering profitable points along the sanitation value chain to economically incentivize people to adopt and sustain toilet use.

Felix Urena blushes when I call him “inge”, the shortened version of “inginero” in Spanish. People often just refer to professionals by their training as a form or respect. Felix had heard on the radio about a toilet that didn’t need water and provided fertilizer. Living in water-stressed District 9 of peri-urban Cochabamba, where he often spent up to seven times more on his ‘potable’ water than his fellow Cochabambinos with household water connections, he was eager to learn more about a composting toilet. He went to an informational session and agreed to co-finance a composting toilet at his home-for his own family and to show others how the technology worked. Felix put in five more times what he received as a small subsidy and modified his toilet with his ‘steering wheel’ device. Composting toilets need to have the dry wastes mixed so that composting occurs evenly throughout the chamber, but many people do not like to stir their shit with a large stick, which it what had generally been done. Now all Felix has to do is ‘drive’ a couple of times of week and he’s golden. Felix’s story is one of example of how we are learning to be smarter with our support, and to support programs that are not dependent on Water For People.

Although we are officially done running for toilets, I won’t stop running or talking about toilets, and Water For People has its work cut out to continue to get people on the pot. We couldn’t have done this without all of our supporters. A vey special thank you to our sponsors: ME Simpson and Co, AECOM, and FSAWWA. Thanks to Turnbull, Scott, Celeste, Kat, Lindsey, and Jackie for running with us and to everybody for donating, buying shirts, introducing us to nuun (Laura and Sam, we’d have dropped out of every race without it!) telling your friends, or just stopping to think for a moment how great having a ‘John’ really is.

On a training run, 15,000 feet in the Bolivian Andes

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