Ammonia gas detectors could be used to detect sites of open defecation

The UN marks World Toilet Day with a giant inflatable toilet. Image: Getty.

Approximately 1bn people around the world practice open defecation. Last month, on World Toilet Day, the UN announced that 1 in 6 people in developing countries are not using toilets.

The problem is often overlooked; yet it’s known to result in cholera, typhoid, diarrhoea, polio, reduced physical growth, hepatitis, worm infestation and impaired cognitive function. It has other implications, too: women faced increased risk of sexual harassment for women; children are forced to drop out of schools at an early age due to lack of toilet access.

The World Health Organisation and UNICEF estimate that open defecation rates in developing countries have actually almost halved in just over 20 years: from 31 per cent in 1990 to 17 per cent in 2012. Of the 1bn that do practice open defecation, 82 per cent are present in just 10 countries. Nonetheless, in Sub Saharan Africa, diarrhoea remains the third biggest killer of children under five.

It’s clear is that peoples’ attitudes needs to be changed – but how can governments go about monitoring peoples’ toilet habits? Brurce Muhammad Mecca, an engineer from the Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia, thinks he may have the answer.

There are more people in Indonesia who practice open defecation than in any other Asian country except India: approximately 21 per cent of the Indonesian population, a whopping 54m people. So Mecca and his colleagues have designed Open Defecation Eyes, or ODEYES. These will capture information about the open defecation activities taking place by using gas detectors to measure how much ammonia, a gas found in human faeces, is present in different villages.

Mecca and colleagues aim to place the detectors in different locations within Indonesian villages, so the amount of open defecation taking place in different areas can be mapped out accordingly. But because open defection doesn’t only take place in villages, the project is also looking into placing the gas detectors in strategic areas such as the riverside or corn and paddy fields. This mapping activity should make it possible to compare the attitudes of people within cities to those in rural areas, too.

The ODEYES project also aims to develop electronic maps that would ultimately be present inside governmental offices: whenever there are significant levels of ammonia present, an indicator would light up, informing officials that high levels of open defecation are taking place in that particular area, so that they can take action.

Mecca and colleagues have recently submitted the ODEYES project to the UNICEF Global Design Challenge to get advice on how to refine the project further. Mecca says the project should begin developing its first prototypes after approximately six months, when enough funding has been obtained, further changes have been implemented and designs have been finalised.

Although ODEYES is currently in its initial stages, the problem it targets is essential and the solution it proposes has potential; one can also imagine similar initiatives being executed in other developing countries in the near future. 

 
 
 
 

“Residents were woken by the sound of bulldozers”: in Lagos, gentrification can mean midnight demolition

A displaced family sits on make-shift structures after their home in the waterfronts was demolished last November. Image: Getty.

The ambitious plans produced by the Lagos state government to redevelop the most populous city in Africa are often lauded in Nigeria. Moving around in this buzzing yet often dysfunctional commercial capital is often tortuous, with thick traffic and poor connectivity problems across the city.

The current state governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, wants to remake the city’s image, turning it from a sprawling bottleneck of a city to a better structured and more functional one. But his plans to improve infrastructure and redevelop large parts of the city have had sinister consequences for swathes of the city’s population: the urban poor, who seem to have no place in Ambode’s vision.

The last few years have seen an alarming trend of state-backed destruction of small businesses, markets and especially informal housing settlements, “regenerating” areas with new expensive housing and development. Last year a large fishing community in Lagos informally called the ‘waterfronts’, housed over 300,000 people. But in the last five months, three rounds of demolitions have ruthlessly left more than 35,000 people homeless.

In November, the homes of over 30,000 people were destroyed by bulldozers. Last week a further 4,700 people were the victims of sudden midnight demolitions. According to residents, the destruction was supervised by state officials and police. A High Court ruling the previous January had said that previous demolitions by the state were “inhumane” and against the residents’ human rights, mandating all parties to enter mediation. All the same, residents were woken up by the sound of bulldozers which destroyed their homes, with no notice to collect their belongings.

Demolitions like this have become increasingly commonplace in Lagos, where land is scarce and valuable. By some estimates, over two thirds of people in Lagos live in informal housing settlements. And not only is there a premium on expensive housing projects; many of the state’s big infrastructure plans, like the desperately needed bridge connecting the Island to the mainland, cut through areas filled with such settlements.

After demolitions, many residents simply move to the outskirts of their destroyed communities or to other informal settlements. The cost of setting up shelters to live in is far more is feasible than formal housing costs.

Too often the government prefers to evict and demolish rather than mediate. It rarely provides assistance for tenants to move, or regulates and redevlops those areas with them in mind.  After a kidnapping near the waterfronts, the governor of Lagos, Akinwunmi Ambode, described the communities as “the abode of miscreants/street-urchins, kidnappers, touts, street traders and hawkers”. In his vision of a modern Lagos, slums and street sellers have little place.


A closing market

Government policies have also made it increasingly hard for the urban poor to work. In many settlement areas, small markets spring up to cater to the communities that live there. Small businesses also set up in other areas that aren’t approved, or in complexes rented from landlords who aren’t transparent with tenants about ownership disputes.

On side streets, women sell items laid on fabric or stools. And on the streets of Lagos, young men and women, and sometimes children, weave dangerously between impatient motorists: the gridlocks that hurt the city present a ready market for those selling anything from drinks and snacks, to underwear or household furniture.

Officially a ban on street trading has been in place in Lagos since 2003, but in the last year, in certain key areas, it has been more keenly enforced. Millions of families rely on street trading for income, yet its dangers and problems are clear. Here too, instead of reforming a system that millions of people rely on, the government wants to end it entirely. State officials have in the last year targeted key areas, arresting street sellers and confiscating their goods.

The government claimed that, after the ban, street traders would be able to access loans to start more formal businesses. But poor capacity, access and loan requirements have made it a out-of-reach for many traders.

Gentrification is a hallmark of major cities all over the world. But in Lagos, to many of the city’s poor, it’s manner is particularly violent and cruel.

The governor is keen to be the face of a new Lagos, attracting and administering new redevelopment projects. But he is not prepared to work out how to rehouse or compensate the people whose lives are being torn apart by such plans. He wants Lagos to be more ordered, for selling on the street to move into more regulated areas. But as the space for those areas diminishes to make way for shopping malls, and the costs outstrip people’s resources, there are many reasons why people aren’t selling there in the first place.

Regenerating and reforming Lagos is not a problem in itself. But the disregard for many of the people who live there is fuelling needless suffering.

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