Go With The Flow


In an article I otherwise more or less agree with, the Unsleeping Eye picked up something interesting that’s worth discussing. Craig Turp, probably the only professional foreign resident writer in Romania whom I respect, added this throwaway line to his piece on the ICR scandal:

Has civil society ever issued a statement demanding something be done about the fact that 42 per cent of homes in Romania do not have indoor plumbing?

Honestly, some of these people have a bizarre sense of priorities.

This is in fact the third time the Eye has brought this statistic to my attention in the past week. I’ll go ahead and assume it is true since I know the census was conducted last year and the questionnaire did include information about whether I had running water in my apartment (for the record, I do).

What’s less obvious is that 42% (or any percent, really) of homes in Romania not having indoor plumbing is some kind of bad thing that needs rectifying or requires statements from civil society or even protesters in the street.

From Mr. Turp’s perspective, residing in Bucharest, a simmering shithole of a metropolis at this time of year due to the heat island effect, or even to residents of dear old Unicorn City, it is indeed a “given” that indoor plumbing is a necessity. The only apparent alternative for cities like ours would be the disastrous conditions of the late 19th century with open sewers, swarming rat populations and endemic waves of diseases. There is just no possible way for millions of city dwellers in Romania to live together (especially in those big apartment blocs) in a hygienic way without indoor plumbing.

But Romania is not just composed of cities. In fact, the majority of the population lives in small towns or villages and not big cities. And I for one think that in many cases not having indoor plumbing is actually a better choice in those conditions.

Indoor plumbing as we know it has several aspects, all of which are worth considering:

Public Hygiene/Disease Prevention – As was amply demonstrated in the Victorian Era of Jolly Olde England, large cities without sewage systems and indoor plumbing are a nightmare mishmash of garbage, effluvium, stench and disease.

But that was with the technology of another era. Today I know many urban dwellers who use composting toilets (including in buildings for high-volume public use) safely and hygienically. These exist even in high status countries such as Turp’s Britain and they neither transmit diseases nor do they put off an unpleasant odor. These toilets use either zero water or only a very small amount of water and in no way require “indoor” plumbing or sewage systems.

Quite frankly I know people who lives in cities (that have modern sewage systems) who chose to build their own toilet from simple materials. Their reason for doing so varies but is often both as a protest against the tremendous waste of water (see below) as well as a way to be “environmentally friendly” and actually use the resulting compost to grow plants. Instead of their toilet being a depository for waste, it’s actually a source of future fertilizer.

Therefore it is perfectly possible to maintain public hygiene and prevent diseases in an ecologically friendly (and low cost!) way without indoor plumbing when it comes to toilets/sewage.

Showering/Bathing – I used to live in a village in Romania and I went to another one last year as part of the Pro TV segment they were filming with me. The villagers I knew did not have indoor plumbing but that certainly doesn’t mean they don’t have regular access to water.

The old lady in whose house I made cheese for the segment had her own well just a couple of meters from her doorstep. She was of an advanced age and had both clean clothes as well as a hygienic appearance. There are several older methods for bathing/showering that have been used for centuries and are not that difficult to achieve if you have an abundant source of water (as do all these villagers in Romania).

Furthermore, new technologies exist. I know of several stores here in U City which sell solar showers and these are an extremely low cost and largely effective way to wash yourself. I also know several people in America who use solar water heaters via panels on their roof and these are effective nearly year round with perfect ease (heating water is far easier than generating electricity from solar radiation).

Water Purity – Whether for cooking food or for drinking, all human beings need access to abundant quantities of clean water.

First of all, many villagers that I know (especially the ones around here) get their water straight from mountain springs and it is some of the most pure and delicious water I have ever drunk in my entire life. It is far superior to the tap water I get here in Unicorn City, that’s for sure, and requires no treatment or filtration whatsoever.

Not everyone is as lucky but there are several ways to achieve water purity, ranging from the ultra low cost (an empty PET bottle – what could be cheaper and easier than that?) to using fuel (usually wood in Romania) to boil water to the more expensive filters. With the exception of the more complicated activated carbon filters (and reverse osmosis devices), purifying water is actually a very cheap and easy process for just about everyone assuming you have enough time to do it and an abundant source of water (and I’m guessing those 42% of Romanians without plumbing all have wells or springs nearby).

Indoor plumbing, on the other hand, is cursed with a very large problem and that is that sewage (called “black water”) is mixed with water from sink drains and clothes washing machines (called “grey water”) and then pumped to a treatment facility. This means that the relatively clean water from your sink or shower is mixed with the effluvium in your toilet and has to be treated before it can be returned back to the system.

Everything from cleaning chemicals (that Cillit Bang doesn’t disappear into space, you know) to discarded pharmaceuticals to vomit, blood and of course feces is all mixed in together and has to be filtered and then dosed with a large volume of toxic substances down at the water treatment plant in order to be rendered “safe”. Water treatment plants (which are necessary for “indoor plumbing”) are actually dumping huge amounts of pollution into the environment.

When you don’t have indoor plumbing, none of this is applicable. Your gray water (from cooking, showers, etc) can be safely used to water plants (or in some cases given to animals) and your black water waste is completely separated. Under hygienic conditions, it is actually composted into fertilizer and the soil itself becomes the filter to remove out the toxic substances. No chemicals and poisonous substances are required whatsoever to return the liquids to the environment.

Wasting Water – Billions of liters of water are purified at water treatment plants with toxic chemicals to render it safe to drink. An additional problem is that this potable (safe to drink) water is used both to supply the taps in your sink and your toilet, where it is completely unnecessary. This is a shocking waste of money and doing tremendous harm to the environment simply because potable water is piped equally to your sink/shower as well as to your toilet.

For people without indoor plumbing, of course, this is never an issue. No money and no chemicals are ever wasted on providing water for toilets.

Convenience – No doubt about it, turning on a tap and having unlimited amounts of water flow into your home is a nice convenience. I certainly agree. But computers, cars and mobile phones are also nice conveniences for some folks as well. Neither indoor plumbing nor computers or mobile phones are necessary whatsoever for quality of life though.

So yeah I guess I have “bizarre” priorities because I see nothing wrong whatsoever with 42% of Romanians not having indoor plumbing. It’s simply a convenience that urban dwellers are used to and it’s become so ubiquitous for some people from elite countries that they think it is a sign of endemic problems when other people in other countries (who live in different conditions) fail to adopt identical standards. But then again, British people eat beans for breakfast so what do they know? :P

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3 Responses »

  1. hahhaha quite funny and true!!! loved the bean part

  2. I used to live with my grandparents somewhere around Bucharest and I miss those days. Washing my clothes at the river using traditional animal fat soap, bathing myself in a barrel full of hot water, eating butter I used to make with my oun hands, drinking warm milk just after my grandmother milk the cow or the sheep… Those were the happy days! These tipe of people know how to live healthy and natural.

  3. Good post, but I take issue with “Neither indoor plumbing nor computers or mobile phones are necessary whatsoever for quality of life though”. Most of the people who live in the countryside are old, and some of them can’t move very well, or at all. For them, indoor plumbing would make a significant difference, beyond just a “nice convenience”. It is possible to maintain your hygiene without running water, but let’s be honest, it can be quite a challenge if you’re very old. Not to mention walking several times a day to the outhouse, when you can barely walk at all.

    On drinking water: mountain villages might get their water from mountain springs, but the rest rely on wells. Wells can be contaminated with pesticides and other waste, so that water isn’t always completely safe either.

    Yes, “42% of homes in Romania do not have indoor plumbing” is not as tragic as it sounds to some, but I’m not sure it’s an ideal situation.

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