Book review :The Big Necessity

India Water Portal
Saturday, November 22, 2014 - 10:30

Cover of "The Big Necessity"   


The Big Necessity - The unmentionable world of human waste and why it matters By Rose George


This is a brilliant effort of bringing the very serious and indelicate topic of sanitation to the reader, in a lively and witty style. Her technique of interleaving real-life stories with larger-than-life characters succeeds in keeping the reader engrossed.


She has traversed the sewers, gutters, slums, and fields around the globe to open the world of sanitation to the reader. 


The book gives a broad perspective of the narrow and unmentionable topic through a series of stories of heroes across the world who braved the odds to experiment new approaches to the real issues in sanitation.


The key concepts and ideas in this book :


- Importance of sanitation: at the most basic level, the availability of a private and hygienic facility for defecation is a necessary condition for human civilization. 


- The current situation: 2.6 billion people are toiletless. The book covers goverments and development organizations’ attempts to tackle this challenge. Obstacles, techniques, strategies.


- China – the evolution of the biogas experiment, where the Chinese government launched a campaign for installing biogas digestors, which would provide fuel for cooking, and fertilizer for farming. 


- Japan : a hilarious account of how the Japanese made the transition from stones and sticks to the beautifully engineered robo-toilets that provide a comprehensive luxury toilet experience.


- Modern big cities: London has miles of sewers that are 250 years old. “.. they may be in pretty good condition, but sometimes they don’t work..”.  The growth of these cities has led to a huge strain on the sanitation system. There have been many instances of overflow of sewage into gardens, roads, houses, water-systems.


- The challenge of bio-solids : the effectiveness of waste-water treatment plants is suspect, in terms of the quality of the treated water, and disposal of sludge. There is an ongoing debate on whether the sludge can safely be used as fertilizer. Waste-water treatment plants also need a lot of energy to build and maintain.


- India : The success story of ‘Sulabh Shauchalya” – a concept that provided affordable sanitation to thousands of people across Indian towns. This is a rare instance of a business with a social cause that paid for itself.


- An in-depth look at the prevalent practice of open defecation in the villages of India and Bangladesh, and the challenges of making the transition to toilets – the resistance to change within communities; hence the success of CLTS - community led total sanitation, which is driven from inside the community.


- A big section on city slums : 


-A glimpse at the slums of Mumbai: The density, the shifting, and chaotic development of slums makes it impossible to provide individual toilets; public toilets are few and ill-maintained; sewrage is often dumped into storm-water drains, leading to contamination of the water system. The SPARC experiment of getting the slum-dwellers to design and build their own system.


-Some workable solutions from Brazil and Karachi – “simplified sewrage” using smaller pipes in shallow trenches.


-African cities – the spread of disease (cholera) due to lack of sanitation; the experiment with “Gulper”, a manual latrine-emptying pump that can be carried on a motor-cycle.


Eco-san : Toilets without water - the most eco-friendly solution to sanitation, which minimizes the use of water, and allows local disposal  of waste. Some success stories, also some problems. The psychological blocks against eco-san; huge behavior changes which are difficult to achieve. The divide between waterborne sewrage systems and eco-san. 


What can you take from the book?


- the realization of the huge problem of sanitation that looms on the horizon of humanity,

and its neglect by the modern civilization.


- it's not only the problem of the poor - everybody is vulnerable.


“Our ignorance is leading to actions that pollute the earth and water bodies; the first thing sanitation needs is a spotlight shining on it".


A very informative and engaging book.


By Anuradha Hegde



I did a quick read of this book recently.     It’s a really great read and gives an excellent hi-level understanding of sanitation and wastewater across geographies, countries and socio-economic situations.  Some interesting bits:


*       there is a really intense description of how a city’s sewer networks are managed and maintained. Difficult to read yet unputdownable

*       how using ‘nightsoil’ for agriculture has been a very ordinary and mainstream activity in China and the biogas revolution in recent years where human and livestock (pig) excreta are used together at a household level to generate biogas too

*       how opposition is building in the US over the use of sludge from sewage treatment plants for agriculture (due to the increasing amounts of chemicals and pharmaceuticals in the sludge along with the good nutrients).

*       the terrible picture of urban sanitation in cities like Dar es Salaam and Mumbai

*       sanitation personalities like Jack Sim of the World Toilet Organisation and Ronnie Kasrils, the South African Water Minister who created their right to water, championed sanitation and won the World Water Rights. 

*       On the lighter side – the story of Toto and the Japanese obsession with hitech toilets 

A great read and recommended for everyone ! 


-- Vijay