In February of this year Sierra Leone announced its 1000 open-defecation free village at the same time as organizations in Niger are geared up for a campaign to produce similar results there (IRIN, 2011). Only 2% of the population in Niger has access to adequate sanitation and a majority of people use no toilet at all, defecating in the open and giving pathogens ample opportunity to spread. Organizations such as Plan Niger and UNICEF are working to change this, using a well-known method for driving behavior change, Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS). The techniques used in CLTS focus on building feelings of disgust and shame related to open defecation – thus motivating people to stop open defecation and use a toilet.
The popularity of CLTS is derived from the realization within the sanitation community that simply building better sanitation facilities may not be enough to get people to use them. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for improving the sanitation and corresponding health situation around the world is that it means changing the hygiene and defecation practices of individuals. Humans are creatures of habit and motivating change can be an extremely difficult task (ask anyone who has tried to break a bad habit), perhaps especially when it has to do with a taboo subject such as sanitation. The tactics of CLTS have meet with some success in Asia and Africa, yet in other areas they have been criticized as manipulative and inappropriate for the local culture. But at least one thing is sure – stronger drivers than a shiny toilet are needed to get people to change.
While many people understand the need for behavior change when it comes to open defecation, it is actually an issue for sustainable sanitation across the globe. There is growing agreement that achieving sustainable sanitation will require new innovations, even in places like Sweden where wastewater infrastructure is nearly universal (Lüthi et al., 2010). For example, future sanitation systems will need to drastically reduce water use and close the loop on nutrients. The toilets of the future may very well look and work differently than the standard flush-toilet with which we are familiar. New innovations will mean changes in the current system and will require users to adapt accordingly. The changes to the actual user interface may be large or small, but if the new systems are to achieve the ambitious health and environmental goals it will demands that people change.
school education on how to use a urine-diverting toilet (from SuSanA site, photo by Robert Gensch)
That an individual’s behavior can make a difference for all is true for more than just sanitation. In order to meet ambitious climate change policy and reduce the carbon footprint for the entire city, the City of Stockholm has started a public awareness campaign aimed at changing the inhabitants’ lifestyles and consumer behaviors. Being climate smart is rather trendy these days, yet the City is spending significant time and resources to really motivate change. However, imagine how much more effort would to needed to convince consumers, the housing market and politicians to back a change that would gradually replace all flush-toilets in Stockholm with, say dry composting toilets. There just isn’t enough incentive to change right now; just as many open-defecators in Niger see no reason to change their morning routine of visiting the nearest bush. Yet achieving sustainable sanitation for all will require that we overcome this societal inertia and find a way to motivate change in hygiene and sanitation behavior at all levels. We need to start critically assessing our current behavioral and organizational practices in order to identify how technologies, knowledge, and policy can act as catalysts for change. The message has to be right.
IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis, 23 February 2011
Lüthi, C., Panasar, A., Schütze, T., Norström, A., McConville, J., Parkinson, J., Saywell, D., & Ingle, R. (2010). Sustainable Sanitation in Cities: A Framework for Action. Papiroz Publishing House: Rijswiik, The Netherlands.