Down Side of Flush Latrines

Down Side of Flush Latrines

My nephew and dear friend Manoj came recently to Bangalore for three days and stayed with us. One day, during our chats and discussions we rambled on to the topic of flush latrines. Obviously, I had thought more on this subject than he but he was more interested than most people I know. When we parted, he asked that I should write it up as a weekly story. So here it is for what it is worth.

Many years ago I read about the origin of today’s ubiquitous flush latrines and a faint outline is still imprinted on my mind. I cannot say that the details are historically authentic, but for our purpose here it does not matter even if it is fiction. About the beginning of the 20th Century, somewhere in the American mid-west a young inventor brought a contraption to the manager of the local Sears, Roebuck store. Normally, such things are either ignored, or laughed over and forgotten. But this manager didn’t do either; he immediately saw the great potential of the simple looking device and after testing it in his own house drew the attention of his superiors.

His enthusiastic description of the innovation rubbed well on the State Manager and he promised to visit the following day to see it for himself. On carefully examining the new device he used it for a few days and felt even more enthusiastic than the local store manager. The inventor was given some money and asked to make a few more prototypes. In a short time the word spread and reached right to the top of the Sears organization which by that time had grown to be the world’s largest retail chain.

The device was named water closet. A manufacturer began to produce them and Sears sold them in their stores all over the United States. At that time industry was flourishing, cities were increasing in number and bursting in size. Dry latrines were a serious damper. Water closet came to the scene as a boon at an appropriate time. Naturally, therefore, it quickly became Sears’ fastest selling item. In just a few years every house in urban America had a flush toilet and soon afterward they spread even to the rural areas. Today, all over USA, it is illegal to defecate in a dry latrine. You cannot relieve yourself on the soil in the open, even if there is nobody around! That is what the law says, but I am sure some Americans disobey the law in dire circumstances or sometimes just for the heck of it! But the law is clear; you have to use a flush latrine that drains either into an urban sewage system or a septic tank built according to prescribed specifications. If you don’t, you can be put in jail.

Total acceptance
Not even a whimper was heard against the new toilet for many decades. The main reason for this was that it proved to be a great convenience for the urban dwellers and acquired the status of an indicator of modernity and progress. Also, with the coming of the chemical fertilizers the value of human excreta as organic manure began to slide downward. This happened even in countries like China and India where the merit of human excreta as highly valued manure was recognized for thousands of years. In India it was called son khad (gold manure); in China farmers expected their guests to defecate on their land. If they erred and went to the neighbor’s land, the neighbor had to send his guests to over to balance the account.

Awareness of Demerits
In the last two or three decades the downside of the flush latrine has begun to be noticed. In recent years it has become a major issue, and the downside is appearing to be much larger than the upside. Due to limitation of space we will talk only about a few major points and wait for the next opportunity to go into details.

Flushing human excrement requires a huge amount of water; roughly twenty to thirty times the weight and volume of the excreta. In a family of five, if on an average each person uses the lavatory 4 times a day, 400 liters of water is needed daily. If we calculate on this basis for a city of a million people, it would add up to 80m liters a day just for flushing the latrines. Other requirements such as bathing, laundry, cleaning, cooking, drinking etc. would consume an equal amount daily if not more. Even this very rough estimate shows that the total water requirements of our cities are becoming alarmingly huge.

At a time of water scarcity we can reduce our use of water for other needs but not our flush toilets. Imagine what would happen if a city’s water supply is stopped for some reason. People will cut down their water use, but from the second day onwards a panic will start to build up in their bathrooms. By the fourth day in many houses there will be no water for flushing and latrines will begin to get stinking full. By the fifth day some families will have to start evacuating the city. This is not just imaginary fear; such a thing can actually happen in all big cities. And this kind of movement is likely to turn into an exodus in a short time.


Flush latrines present us a problem of handling a huge sea of liquid muck that grows larger every year. This muck is not dead and inactive; it is highly contaminated with pathogens and full of toxins.

Pathogens in our stomachs are under strict check of the immune systems of our bodies; but out in the open, and in a watery medium, they can multiply and spread very fast. Even in the most efficiently run cities constant underground flow of this dangerous material inevitably contaminates the earth and the drinking water. It is no wonder, therefore, that citizens of all modern cities (including London, Paris, and San Francisco) drink packaged water and their children cannot safely play with the mud.

If human excreta is mixed with dry organic matter and piled up for composting, it is not only harmless but in just 2 or 3 months it turns into valuable fertilizer and can be spread on the soil or even put in flower pots.
If, however, human excreta is mixed with water it becomes a perfect breeding medium for pathogens. Pathogens flourish and rapidly multiply in a watery medium.

Same applies to the toxins; residues of pesticides, fertilizers, detergents, lead, etc. are appearing in increasing quantities in our excrements, and in a watery medium they become very mobile. These hazardous materials spread under our feet, run parallel to our water supply lines and contaminate our drinking water just like the pathogens. In many cities tests have shown dangerously high presence of toxic chemicals in the tap water.

It is not at all necessary to mix our excreta with large quantities of water. For rural areas many simple dry latrine designs are in use. We should further improve them and encourage their spread. Many years ago at the Sewagram Ashram a museum of latrine designs was established to which many inventors contributed designs. One or the other of these designs has been used in most Gandhi Ashrams throughout the country. I have myself used one of them (the trench latrine) for many years and found it quite satisfactory. In recent years many people all over the world are making and testing new innovations. One that is getting a lot of praise is a Swedish design that I hear can be installed and used even in a multistory modern building. In this design together with the excreta all other organic household waste is composted for use in flower and vegetable beds or pots.

In the rural areas we can easily develop hygienic and decent ways of depositing our excreta directly on the ground. In good living soil it decomposes in a week or less and turns into rich safe compost loved by plants. I know this from personal experience. All my life while living in rural areas or visiting them I have avoided using indoor facilities. I cover the material with mud or cowdung if I can find some lying around. At times I use grass or dead leaves. A bonus one gets from this method is that by examining our own stool we can know if we are eating the right food in right amount. For instance if my stool stinks the food in my stomach is petrifying; I need to regulate my diet.

Twenty years ago I knew an American maverick who lived on a small homestead in Maine and used only his simple dry latrine where he used saw dust. The city came to know about it and tried to open the law book to him. He refused to obey the wrong law. The city backed out fearing adverse media publicity.

This man used to produce a monthly newsletter for limited circulation. I was one of his customers. In one of the issues he said to the effect that the flush latrine was one of the three most dangerous inventions of man; the other two being nuclear reactor and the automobile. Events of last 20 years are proving his prophetic words.

Let me end by saying that I am neither an expert nor a missionary. I am only sharing my experiences. Use your own judgment. If you think I exaggerate, press the erase button and forget it. But if you think there is truth in what I say then think and do what you can.

March 11, 2006