The flush toilet is a curious object. The default method of excreta disposal for billions of people, it is probably the least innovated product in the modern world. Its golden age of invention was 300 years ago, when improvements such as the siphonic flush (which pulls water from the bowl) and the S-bend (which stops odor emerging) were added. But while products like the telephone have been improved through generations of innovation – its inventors would have trouble fixing a smartphone – the toilet has not. Why? It is good at what it does: Pour into it several liters of drinking water, flush, and your waste is efficiently removed. But it is flawed. Flush toilets make no sense in water-stressed environments, for example. Some people think they make no sense anywhere: When water closets took over from privies in 19th-century London, plenty complained that mixing human shit with water was a criminal waste of good manure. Yet even in places not suited to flush toilets, they are still the waste disposal of choice.
Flush toilets make no sense in water-stressed environments.
In South Africa, when post-apartheid governments tried to offer toiletless people an improved pit latrine (no flies; better ventilated), their offers were refused, though water was scarce. Perhaps mindful of this, some government authorities installed flush toilets for slum areas, hoping residents would provide enclosures. “Most people here don’t work,” says Ntombizanele Damse, who lives in Kayelitsha township near Cape Town, “we can’t afford to build walls.” Though the open toilets have caused massive protests – the “toilet wars” of 2011 – they are still open, and still used.