HEALTH Secretary Janette Garin’s recent triumphant announcement that the Philippines had met its Millennium Development Goal to increase access to safe sources of drinking water, from 73% of the population in 1990 to 86.5% by 2015, should be a cause for celebration. The country, she claimed, was now close to attaining an 83% access target, with the greatest progress showing in rural areas. Any improvement made to better the lives of the poor is good news. But the truth of the matter is that under President Aquino’s administration, sanitation and sewerage reforms fell far short of what is desperately needed.
Only 7% of the population is connected to a sewer system. 26 million Filipinos, that is 1 in 4 people, are still without sanitary toilet facilities, and of that number, 7 million Filipinos are forced to defecate out in the open, in city streets, esteros, fields and bushes. This state of affairs literally and politically stinks.
Whoever dismisses the clean toilet as anything less than a basic and urgent necessity is a dangerous fool. Human excreta contains an incredible variety and amount of germs, some of which cause diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis A. Open defecation massively increases the risk of these deadly diseases. It exposes human excreta to flies that go on to contaminate food; rain fall may wash excreta into streams, wells and other sources where drinking water is obtained; and people are less likely to wash their hands.
So far, not one presidential candidate has seriously talked about how they would address sanitation problems.
An English poet, Sir John Harrington, is credited with inventing the first flushing toilet, or “lavatory,” sometime in the late 16th century, but it took a further 250 years before they became common. Since the 1980s, the Japanese have revolutionized the toilet, which they politely term oteiarai, the “washroom.” Nothing can compare to the Japanese “washlet,” a stunningly hyper-modern, technologically advanced, ultra hygienic, utterly deodorized toilet experience. In stark contrast, the majority of Manila’s public toilets, at least those that can be found, are an appalling, offensive disgrace.
The fact is, throughout history cleanliness has been part of the civilizing process, and toilets are the great hallmarks of civilization. In Ancient Rome, toilets were an integral part of public baths where the practices of cleansing one’s body had a direct association with civility. Public latrines were places in which men gathered to socialize and demonstrate their piety, offering up their excreta in honor of Stercutius, Crepitus and Cloacina, the Gods of odor, conveniences and sewers. Emperor Vespasian (9-69AD) pioneered the systematic collection of urine to sell to dyke-makers, turning the waste into an important source of government revenue.
17th century European travelers described Southeast Asians as assiduous bathers who kept their bodies scrupulously clean and fragrant. They may not have had toilets but they had distinct notions of hygiene, and believed running water possessed cleansing powers. People from all over the Philippines and Indonesia, it was noted, preferred to live near rivers and streams, while the Burmese were careful not to use the same water for drinking and bathing.
From the late 18th to the mid-19th century, Europeans were connecting bad odors and filth not only to illness and disease, but also to a breakdown in social order and a lack of discipline. This attitude was exported to the colonies. In the Spanish Philippines, municipal authorities obsessed over how Manila’s foul smell gave foreign visitors a bad impression of Spanish rule. Colonial physicians and sanitarian reformers called attention to a host of trouble spots: the poor barrios of nipa palm huts and bamboo, the pigs that rooted beneath houses or roamed the streets, the stench of the Chinese, and, in particular, the city’s waters: the polluted rivers from which the poor drank, bathed, and washed clothes; and the increasingly pestilential waters of the esteros, the ribbons of canals and waterways that were essential to the city’s commerce. Dean C. Worcester, the American scientist and future US Secretary of the Interior, drew links between Manila’s deadly waters, a dysfunctional drainage system, and the ineptitude of Spanish colonial authorities. Cholera ravaged the Philippines four times from the mid- to late 19th century. Each bout increased calls to deodorize Manila and deal with the city’s dirtiness.
The worst smells reportedly emanated from the market areas of Binondo, Tondo and Divisoria. In these areas, the fetid smell of urine had reached intolerable levels and was considered a danger to public health. Natives were accused of being responsible for the constant mal olores because of their disgusting habit of urinating in the canals and in the streets. In an effort to alleviate the problem, $290 Mexican dollars, a great fortune in those days, was allotted for the construction of public latrines. These were to be situated just outside the market areas and were to be built in the latest modern style – four huts or cubicles, painted white and each with windows and doors.
But the plan backfired. Natives would urinate up against the walls of the cubicles rather than go inside. The latrines ultimately deteriorated to “a point below hygiene,” fell into ruin and were not replaced.
The past is past. Or is it?
The blithely ignored “ ‘Bawal ang umihi dito’ (It is forbidden to urinate here) notice,” scrawled everywhere on city walls and posts, will not be disappearing any time soon.