Defend Truth


Stop talking shit: Build your own toilet

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

I wonder when the government is coming to fix my fence. And replace the wiring for that light that doesn’t work. And repair my car. It’s so degrading to have to drive around with a busted bumper. What? I should do it myself? But why?

The whining never ends. “We are tired of the bucket system,” a resident of Fochville on the West Rand told the Sowetan newspaper. “The municipality used to come and drain the buckets, but now the trucks no longer come. We have to dig holes in our yards to empty out the buckets.”

“Bucket system robs residents of their dignity,” declared Grocott’s Mail, Grahamstown’s venerable old newspaper. “One of the residents… says they are still waiting for the municipality to build them houses and eradicate the bucket system.”

“Mangaung mayor Thabo Manyoni has launched a multimillion-rand project to eradicate buckets and ventilated improved pit-latrines (VIPs) in Botshabelo last Thursday,” reports the New Age.

Why is it, indeed, that 19 years after the liberation of South Africa, its free citizens still rely on primitive bucket toilets in ramshackle outhouses?

The Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum has images of such affairs, and they do indeed look nasty. No doubt, VIP toilets, despite the stunningly deceptive name, are not much more pleasant.

Not everyone agrees, however. For example, an extreme environmentalist named Joseph Jenkins wrote the book on shit. Entitled The Humanure Handbook, it advocates building bucket-system shithouses. He calls them Lovable Loos and sells them for $225 a pop.

Two-thousand rand each, for a “bucket system” that really is no different (barring the oak-finish seat) from the infamous legacy of Apartheid that local communities hold up as a symbol of poverty and the gravest of indignities. Perhaps, instead of putting them in museums to commemorate oppression and degradation, we should be selling ours on eBay.

The use of these bucket outhouses is documented on the website of Milkwood, an Australian eco-community devoted to such idyllic pastimes as beekeeping and permaculture. It says the community is “dedicated to growing local food systems and resilient communities with world-class knowledge and hands-on skills.”

Admittedly, this all sounds rather poncy and euphemistic, coming as it does from eco-nutters in the rich world, but when you think about it, South Africa could use some “resilient communities” with “hands-on skills” of its own. Skills like how to erect your own brick shithouse, should the government fail to use other people’s money to deliver such basic facilities to you for free.

If, after 19 years, you still don’t have a pot to piss in, and you still believe government is even remotely capable of delivering services that you can provide for yourself with a few weekend’s work, you need your head read.

If the Milkwood site is anything to go by, it isn’t terribly hard to build a composting toilet system that can cater for dozens of people, safely gets rid of disease-spreading toilet waste, and also produces usable compost for gardens.

Not having decent toilets is degrading, yes, but government can only humiliate free people if they let themselves be humiliated. The real degradation is in the admission that nobody in the community could be bothered to build walls around a toilet, or build something better than a bucket to slop out in the streets. That is the kind of degradation that people can only inflict upon themselves.

A cleverly designed and well-managed “closed-loop” sanitary system built by enterprising people in the community can be a source of both pride and prosperity, as it is for the Aussies with their outback outhouses.

If the idea of cleaning out buckets for composting sounds like more work than you’d like, rather than the sort of thing people have done for themselves throughout history, and that some rich people actually want to do again, then perhaps your sights should be set a little higher.

The more ambitious resident, or an enterprising local plumber, can try their hand at a septic tank system. A septic tank and drainage field may be a challenge in densely built locations, but in rural or peri-urban backyards, they need as little as 5m a side for a two-bedroom family home.

They’re not particularly hard to build, but they do require more knowledge, planning and care than a composting loo. It can be built with hand tools, although a small mechanical digger will no doubt come in handy. The Internet is full of handy tips and tricks, but not being a sanitary engineer, I’m wary of leading anyone astray. A badly constructed septic tank is not something you want to foist on your home or community. It can lead to water pollution, disease outbreaks, divorce and fist-fights down at the pub. Well-located and properly constructed, however, they are safe and effective for years of government-free use.

Ask a plumber for advice on how to build it so that it works, and doesn’t cost you the earth. Also enquire what permissions you need from the bureaucrats in government who whizz around in their expensive cars failing to provide the basic services for which they are employed. Undoubtedly, you’ll need their permission to do their jobs for them.

Government agencies, such as the Department of Water Affairs and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, have plenty of resources about best practices in designing and building septic tank systems, but judging by the government’s track record, you may not want to rely on them to tell you how to do it yourself.

Instead, approach a private company that specialises in this field. Manufacturers of roto-moulded plastic tanks, which you often see used for rainwater harvesting, also provide built-for-purpose septic tanks. Some companies even offer great information on how to build a good sewerage system. If you have building experience and know how to do it right, you may be able to save on the costs of tanks by building your own concrete tanks, but face it, these plastic units are less likely to crack and leak, and they don’t cost the world when amortised over 19 years of decent toilet use.

If you’re feeling adventurous, get in touch with a local environmental group, such as the McGregor Alternative Technology Centre, the Shaster Foundation, Siyakhana, or BioSynergetics and design a system that more broadly deals with rainwater, soil runoff and composting for food gardening or small-scale commercial agriculture purposes.

Sure, all this eco-cleverness will be more expensive in the short-term than centralised, government-supplied water-borne sewerage. If you’re rich, and you have running water and flushing toilets, it may not be worth the trouble. But if you’re not rich, chances are the government won’t get around to supplying such luxuries for years to come, so the choice is quite simple, and the price is right. You’ll be amazed at the things you can do with efficient water and waste management in and around your house, combined with a little creative ingenuity. Even the gasses produced by a septic system can be used as a form of energy, so a little forethought can go a long way.

For small investments of time and money, you too can have a throne on which to peruse the morning paper in privacy, and cluck in middle-class disapproval at the sloth and corruption in government.

So why not get your community together and learn to perform such useful tasks as building drainage systems and septic tanks? And once you’ve learned how, why not start a business, supplying the services that the government can’t be bothered to provide? If there is no service delivery, and high unemployment, the shrewd businessperson will fill the gap, and make a dent in both problems. It should be easy to get regular work in your community, or by partnering with manufacturers of tanks and other sanitary hardware.

A resilient and self-reliant community is one that continually grows its own knowledge and skills, and solves its own problems. Those that don’t will forever blame the government for what really is their own disgrace: the indignity of having to admit for how long they couldn’t be bothered to build the most basic of facilities. Conversely, those that look after themselves will never again face the humiliation of whining for half a lifetime, waiting for a government that never comes. DM