Jewish World Review June 19, 2003 / 19 Iyar, 5763

Tom Randall

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Push to deny flush toilets to world's poor smacks of hypocrisye | The environmental elitists who sip champagne and nibble on caviar at fund-raisers in their swank Gold Coast penthouses here often remind me of Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake" coterie in the waning days of Louis XVI.

Friends of the earth, but not of mankind, they first denied developing countries the mosquito-killing benefits of DDT - and millions of Asians and Africans have died as a result.

Then they joined forces with protectionists in Europe to persuade African leaders not to accept shipments of genetically modified corn from the United States that might have eased that continent's current widespread famine and saved additional millions from the ghastly prospect of slow death by starvation.

Now, it seems, they're intent on stepping from the cruelly absurd into the utterly ridiculous.

A growing number of environmentalists are pushing to deny several billion African and Asian poor people the hygienic benefits of Sir Thomas Crapper's most famous invention - the modern flush toilet.

Although the industrialized nations of Europe and North America have enjoyed the convenience of the flush toilet for more than a hundred years, the elitists who lead the environmental movement prefer that the world's poor continued to be saddled with unsanitary outdoor toilets.

Allowing the 2 billion or so people who subsist on $2 a day to exchange a compost toilet for a Kohler, they fret, would create an international water crisis. The environmentalists will push their latest cause celebre at the first annual International Dry Toilet Conference in Tampere, Finland, in late August.

Flush toilets in developing nations like China, India and Nigeria "will just be an environmental disaster," warns Larry Warnberg, a featured speaker at the conference. "I think it is a mistake to inflict that costly convenience on a developing country without realizing what the consequences are."

Eco-activists maintain that developing nations in Africa don't have the sewage infrastructure or the water supplies to sustain a sharp increase in flush toilets.

Only 13 percent of Africa's 840 million people use flush toilets connected to a sewer system. That compares to 100 percent of the United States and Canada's 312 million people and 92 percent of Europe's 728 million residents.

Warnberg, who will address his fellow anti-flushers on the topic "Reducing Regulatory Barriers to Compost Toilets," also - perhaps not so coincidentally - markets a manual on how to build a do-it-yourself "dry" toilet from his Nahcotta, Wash.,-based Web site.

Dry toilets cost about $1,000 plus labor to build using Warnberg's plans. They cost about $2,000 to buy already manufactured. They operate by collecting human urine and feces in a container, but require emptying by humans on a periodic basis.

Environmentalists claim they are wonderful device for poor people in Africa and Asia because the waste materials can be used as fertilizer to produce larger yields from soil that lacks rich nutrients.

Gushes Tittina Repka, the secretary of the coming Finnish conference: "A proper dry toilet system that recycles urine and feces as a compost product brings more productivity to crops and improves the quality of the land. It literally can help people feed themselves."

But critics like Dennis Avery, director of Global Food Issues for The Hudson Institute and a former agricultural expert at the State Department, says compost toilets are hazardous to humans - and especially so in hot, humid tropical areas.

"It's dangerous, dangerous, dangerous," Avery asserts. "You're talking about all kinds of bacterial perils because human manure has pathogens in it. Those pathogens can be transferred to crops and the flies that compost toilets breed can spread them among the general population."

Think of your own neighborhood, Avery suggests. "Can you imagine everyone on your block dumping their household's human waste in their backyard on a daily basis? Think for a moment about the odor, the swarms of flies, the public health risk."

The idea that the world is in the midst of catastrophic water crisis is being promoted by environmental groups, Avery observes, but it is pure fiction, not fact.

Modern sewage systems account for only 5 percent to 10 percent of the world's water usage, while agriculture accounts for about 70 percent and industrial uses take an additional 23 percent.

There's more than enough water to go around. Huge amounts of rainfall like that occurring in the Midwestern and Eastern parts of the United States this year more than make up for occasional droughts.

More and better reservoirs, pumping stations and pipelines to transport water can solve the needs of developing nations without denying them the advantage of modern sewage systems and flush toilets.

Wealthy American and European environmentalists should be ashamed at suggesting that poor Africans and Asians handle composted feces and spread them on food crops every day.

To do so is to condemn hundreds of millions of the world's underprivileged to the plagues of cholera, tuberculosis and malaria. Surely no one who professes to care about the environment could be so heartless.

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Tom Randall is a senior partner at Winningreen LLC, a consulting firm in Chicago. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services