Nicholas School Internship Blogs

My Mind is in the Gutter
by -- June 13th, 2013

I never thought I would spend so much of grad school obsessing over toilets. They’re far from romantic, with nowhere near the appeal of saving cute baby elephants or turtles. Toilets, though, can have huge impacts upon human health and the environment. An innovation too often taken for granted in the US could make enormous changes for the lives of many in the developing world. If you don’t believe me, here’s Matt Damon striking for toilets:

 

Lack of toilets can be dangerous to women’s well-being. I tend to focus more upon the detrimental water quality impacts of sewage. Greywater – the excrement-free water from showering or dish-washing – can also create issues. You can help reduce your grey water impacts by using biodegradable toiletries. This is especially important with sunscreen. The wrong sunscreens can easily smother and kill corals.

 

Greywater from the sink going straight into Inle Lake

The developed world utilizes sewers connected to sewage treatment plants, while more rural areas use septic tanks to treat sewage. Most of Thailand uses septic systems, which is why there are so many signs banning toilet paper in the toilet.  The few sewage treatment plants in Thailand frequently don’t work (the commentary in the second link is both hilarious and depressing — this type of gossip is often the best news source in Thailand).

Sometimes the no toilet paper in the toilet rule of Asia leads to confusion when Asians visit the developed world.

Next door to Thailand, in Burma, even septic systems are uncommon.

A countryside toilet simply sends sewage into a hole without any means of filtration.

Temporary toilets, at a construction site, send all waste directly into Inle Lake.

However, a simple septic system is fairly easy to build.

Toilets in Burma with simple septic systems.

Simple constructed wetlands can filter greywater naturally. However, these need to be done properly. On Koh Phi Phi, there is a fancy constructed wetland wastewater treatment facility. It was a post-tsunami joint project between Denmark and Phi Phi. It is widely regarded as a failure, with much finger pointing in both directions. Were the facility working properly it would be odorless. I can attest from personal experience that the place reeks. To Phi Phi locals it is semi-affectionately known as the poo garden.

 

The Koh Phi Phi “Poo Garden”.

 

In my last post I spoke a bit about the heavy rain. I really wasn’t exaggerating (if you want a good laugh, try and figure out why that last sentence is included in the linked article, but such is Thai news). This type of rain will probably send a huge amount of raw sewage straight to the ocean damaging coral reefs in the process. I love my coral reefs, and if obsessing over toilets can help save some I’m happy to keep my mind in the gutter.

Kathy got sick of the Thais taking the piss out of her trash bag “raincoat”, and I got sick of a wet bum from every trip on my bike. So now we’re rocking some awesome ponchos that just might double as squirrel suits.

 

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