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Planet of Slums

How are the world’s bustling slums coping with the issue of sanitation?

May 16, 2007

How are the world's bustling slums coping with the issue of sanitation?

The subject, of course, is indelicate, but it is a fundamental problem of city life from which there is surprisingly little escape.

For ten thousand years urban societies have struggled against deadly accumulations of their own waste. Even the richest cities only flush their excrement downstream or dump it into a nearby ocean.

Today's poor megacities — Nairobi, Lagos, Bombay, Dhaka, and so on — are stinking mountains of shit that would appall even the most hardened Victorians.

(Except, perhaps, Rudyard Kipling, a connoisseur, who in “The City of Dreadful Night” happily distinguished the "Big Calcutta Stink" from the unique pungencies of Bombay, Peshawar and Benares.)

Constant intimacy with other people's waste, moreover, is one of the most profound of social divides. Like the universal prevalence of parasites in the bodies of the poor, living in shit, as the Victorians knew, truly demarcates two existential humanities.

The global sanitation crisis defies hyperbole. Its origins, as with many Third World urban problems, are rooted in colonialism. The European empires generally refused to provide modern sanitation and water infrastructures in native neighborhoods, preferring instead to use racial zoning and cordons sanitaires to segregate garrisons and white suburbs from epidemic disease.

Postcolonial regimes from Accra to Hanoi thus inherited huge sanitation deficits that few regimes have been prepared to aggressively remedy. (Latin American cities have serious sanitation problems, but nothing to compare with the magnitude of those in Africa or South Asia.)

The megacity of Kinshasa, with a population fast approaching ten million, has no waterborne sewage system at all. Across the continent in Nairobi, the Laini Saba slum in Kibera in 1998 had exactly ten working pit latrines for 40,000 people, while in Mathare 4A there were two public toilets for 28,000 people.

As a result, slum residents rely on “flying toilets" or "scud missiles," as they are also called. In essence, they put the waste in a polythene bag and throw it on to the nearest roof or pathway.

The prevalence of excrement, however, does generate some innovative urban livelihoods: In Nairobi, commuters now confront ten-year-olds with plastic solvent bottles wedged between their teeth, brandishing balls of human excrement — ready to thrust them into an open car window — to force the driver to pay up.

Sanitation in South and Southeast Asia is only marginally better than in sub-Sabaran Africa. A decade ago, Dhaka had piped water connections serving a mere 67,000 houses and a sewage disposal system with only 8,500 connections.

Likewise, less than 10% of homes in metro Manila are connected to the sewer systems. Jakarta, despite its glitzy skyscrapers, still depends on open ditches for disposal of most of its wastewater.

In contemporary India — where an estimated 700 million people are forced to defecate in the open — only 17 of 3,700 cities and large towns have any kind of primary sewage treatment before final disposal.

Being forced to exercise body functions in public is certainly a humiliation for anyone, but, above all, it is a feminist issue.

Poor urban women are terrorized by the Catch-22 situation of being expected to maintain strict standards of modesty while lacking access to any private means of hygiene.

Editor’s Note: Excerpted from Mike Davis’s “PLANET OF SLUMS.” Copyright 2006 Verso. Reproduced with permission of Verso.