Shit Storm

Without a ready supply of water, humanity cannot exist. But the struggle to keep that water clean is one of the most pressing issues in the megacities of the developing world.

Words Kurt Hollander

Two billion people on Earth live without proper sanitation and around one billion — some 15 of the world’s population — relieve their bladders and bowels outdoors in what experts in the eld call “open defecation.” India ranks number one, with about 600 million — almost half the country’s population — followed by Indonesia (54 million), Pakistan (41 million), Nigeria, (39 million) and Ethiopia (34 million). Greater levels of open defecation are associated with higher numbers of infant mortality, malnutrition and the unequal distribution of wealth.

A large chunk of these open defecators do their daily patriotic duty in megacities. In the countryside there is enough land to absorb slews of organic material; within cities, however, it just sits there and stinks, becoming not just an eye and nose sore, but also a serious health hazard. More than a third of the world’s population takes a dump in places where their shit will come into contact with other human beings one way or another, contaminating their drinking water and causing serious damage to their health.

If you live in a developed country you can just flush your problems away. But in underdeveloped countries, especially in their megacities, it’s a lot trickier to keep your own shit — and that of others — away from you and your family.

The average inhabitant in Mexico City produces nearly half a kilo of faeces a day. Multiply this by 21 million and add in the tonnes of dog, cat, rat and squirrel turds, and you get an idea of the volume of crap dumped there every day. Many people feel that they’re surrounded by shit.

Around half of all people in Mexico City are without access to their own toilet and so are forced to use public facilities. To keep the plumbing running in these communal bathrooms,used toilet paper is tossed into baskets, which eventually makes its way to open-air garbage dumps where — along with millions of soiled diapers — it is left to rot under the sun. Eventually this faecal matter dries up and becomes airborne, floating over the city streets and descending onto its inhabitants as “brown snow.”

Although the crap that millions of Mexicans dump each day into a toilet takes an amazing voyage beneath the city streets — through six thousand miles of pipes, 68 pump stations and across almost 100 miles of canals, tunnels, dikes and artificial lakes — it has an uncanny knack of finding its way back to them. Due to a multitude of leaky or burst pipes, aguas negras constantly escape from the sewage system and leach down into the earth beneath. This underground sea of sludge likes to surge up to the surface, especially during rainy season, flooding homes and causing horrendous health disasters. During the 2011 Great Black Flood, 60,000 inhabitants in a single neighbourhood had their homes inundated with crap.

Moving human waste out of a land-locked city has always been difficult work, and in both developed and underdeveloped countries the poorest and most marginal are the ones who have always taken care of it. Since India gained independence this occupation has been illegal, yet it is estimated that over one million people there are paid to collect crap. In the Hindu caste system, working with faeces is believed to pollute the very people who do it and is considered contagious. Those tasked with this unfortunate job are known as “untouchables,” and are socially and physically marginalised; unable to enter temples or schools, they pass their trade down from generation to generation and are only allowed to marry amongst themselves, thus perpetuating their isolation.

Although the untouchables are the most well-known, every country employs a workforce to deal with their human refuse, including Mexico City. Since the Spanish colony was first established here, canals and rivers have been used as dumping grounds for human faeces, with thousands of prisoners and indigenous workers forced to dredge the constantly clogged waterways. The freshwater lakes that irrigated the city’s crops and provided drinking water also served as dumping grounds for humans, and this contaminated water (so toxic it was said to burn duck feathers) spread its stench and disease throughout the city. To deal with this, three huge and costly sewage works were built to funnel the aguas negras out of the city: the Western Interceptor in 1896, the Great Canal in 1898 and the Central Interceptor in 1975.

In 1971, the Federal government selected the Mezquital Valley in the state of Hidalgo, about 50 miles north of Mexico City, as the ideal destination for the majority of the capital’s glut of human waste. In reality, towns in the region had already been receiving faecal matter from the capital due to an existing sewage pipe, built to funnel shit outside of Mexico City in 1608. As the land in the Mezquital Valley is arid and lacks its own water supply, raw sewage from Mexico City is used to irrigate almost 40,000 acres of cropland.The sewage sent to the area receives no treatment — not even the most basic one of separating solids from liquids — and thus the Mezquital Valley, watered by the greatest concentration of aguas negras in all of Latin America, is commonly referred to as the world’s largest outhouse.

When an ocean or river can be found nearby, megacities like to transform them into giant toilets. In Karachi, Pakistan 80 per cent of its untreated wastewater is discharged directly into the Arabian Sea. Dhaka, Bangladesh, dumps two-thirds of its waste directly into local waterways, leading to widespread diseases like cholera and typhoid.

But it doesn’t stop there. The proliferation of crap seeping into urban water systems gives rise to many economies. That Mexico City is the world’s largest consumer of bottled water is directly related to the high quantity of human excrement, and the parasites it carries, making its way into tap water.This has led to the privatisation of what should be a natural element. Carlos Slim, Bill Gates and other billionaires around the world have moved into the lucrative business of water treatment — purifying lthy water and reselling it back to the government for their citizens to consume. The lack of toilets in Mexico City has led to the recent creation of hundreds and hundreds of informal “public” bathrooms that charge a fee to pee. In western India, one state has begun paying residents to use any of its 300 public toilets instead of crapping outside.

But for the megacity majority, it’s still business as usual, and their public pooping continues to be the norm. As long as this continues, giving people access to a clean water supply will remain a pipe dream, and the parasitic problems will continue to ruin their meals.

This is article is from Weapons of Reason’s second issue: Megacities.
Weapons of Reason is a publishing project to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world by Human After All design agency.

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