Chapsang Chag Tshe Lo - Toilet, I Prostrate to You!
People who have built improved toilets in their homes speak about the benefits of better hygiene and sanitation.
In Thorshong Gonpa village in Tsakaling, a community in the eastern district of Mongar, 72-year-old Jigme Choden lives with her 71-year-old husband. Their five children have all spread out across the country and the septuagenarian couple live alone. Their latest achievement is a clean well-built toilet.
“Of course, our children contributed whatever they could,” says Jigme Choden. “We actually did have a decent mud-and-stone toilet that sheltered us from rain and sun. But this new toilet is obviously better.”
Jigme Choden says it was because of the lack of knowledge she and her fellow villagers stuck with the open pit toilets for a long time. Then there was the old belief that toilet should be as far away as possible from the living quarters. An amazing woman with quick wit and a rustic sense of humor, she told us that her clean modern toilet is the best thing that has happened in her life recently. And sounding almost sacrilegious, she declared: “When it was finally complete, I said Chapsang Chag Tshe Lo (Toilet, I Prostrate to You).”
Clean toilets seem to have had deep mental impact on people. The toilets have not only helped them maintain a hygienic lifestyle, but have also given an inner peace of mind.
Farmer Tenzin, 45, of Jalamwoong chiwog in Orong, says that in the past rural hygiene was a dreadful mess. People either defecated in the open or dropped the filth to the pigs. He says people were ignorant and no one educated them about hygiene. “It’s difficult to imagine the way people lived not too long ago,” Tenzin says. “One of the first things I realized after I built this clean toilet was that even my mind seems to remain clean.”
Tenzin’s point of view is understandable. Most rural homes didn’t have proper toilets not until recently. To add to the hygiene woe, these homes also didn’t have access to water like they do today. It was only after the Rural Water Supply Scheme (RWSS) kicked off that people started accessing clean water at reasonable distance from their homes. In early 1980s, the estimation by UNICEF puts rural Bhutanese with “reasonable access to relatively unpolluted water” at a meager 18 per cent, and women spent long hours fetching water from distant sources. Thanks to concerted efforts made by the Government, and timely support from Bhutan’s development partners, the national average rural water supply coverage had expanded from 30 per cent in 1990 to 78 per cent in 2000 and 90 per cent in 2007.
Thus, the longstanding predicament of rural Bhutanese: either defecate in the open, or dump it all to the pigs. The pit toilets that were introduced in the last decade and a half did improve rural hygiene by a reasonable degree. However, as community members said, pit toilets smelled and were a major attraction for flies that spread diseases across villages, and sometimes gewogs.
Indeed, three things that have drastically helped reduce cases of water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, typhoid, worm infestation, cholera, and dysentery are safe water, improved toilets and hand hygiene. Senior health officials say that diarrhoea, at one time, was the main cause of morbidity and mortality in rural Bhutan. Records maintained by health officials in various Basic Health Units also indicate a clear reduction in water-borne diseases like diarrhoea after pour-flush toilets were introduced.
However, water still remains an issue of concern to many households. For example, Guru, 55, of lower Serzong in Mongar, says that at least five households face a severe water shortage in the locality. As a retired armed force personnel, he had savings enough to build two pour-flush toilets, one attached to his bedroom and one outside for guests. “I spent more than Nu 25,000 to build these toilets, and it doesn’t make sense to have them if we don’t have a continuous supply of water,” he says, adding that he and his neighbours have now resorted to harvesting rainwater regularly.
Nevertheless, Guru is proud of what his village folks have achieved. He says that when he came back to live in his village after his retirement in 2013 not a single household in Serzong had improved toilets. “It’s amazing what we’ve achieved in the last three years,” he says beaming with pride. “Every household now has a new clean toilet.”
Some 600 kilometers away from Serzong, Jayanti Uraon, 26, of Khandothang chiwog in the southern district of Samtse, is a happy woman now. Her family built a brand-new toilet with an attached bathroom. She says she couldn’t have imagined anything better. “The new toilet is clean and comfortable to use,” she says, adding that women need such modern structures for safety and privacy, in addition to cleanliness.
The use of water to clean oneself has also improved a lot, say health officials, although some still seem to prefer toilet paper. But it’s an ongoing battle, a battle almost won.
“We advise people to use water to clean themselves,” says the Tsakaling Health Assistant, Pema Lobsang. “We tell them that water is free, and a bar of soap lasts almost a month, and the money used for purchasing a roll of toilet paper could buy a kilo of salt. That way people understand money better.”
Like Nimin and Meto Seldon, rest of the villagers also expressed that the new toilets look good, comfortable and clean with water connected. It not only indicated safe and hygienic toilet but also showed change in the behaviour of people towards hygiene and sanitation.
Dubala, 64, who constructed his toilet with the financial help from his children, said the toilet earlier would stink and it was difficult to walk around in the neighbourhood, but it is different now.
“Clean toilet has also helped us to have a clean house without houseflies that would otherwise come from the toilet.”
When 60-year-old Lhamo of Khoma in Lhuentse heard about the improved toilet she immediately sought help from her children to build one. She says in the past people defecated in the open and fell sick often. “One would see human waste everywhere, in open spaces, in bushes, in the corners of the house outside, almost everywhere,” she says. “The village footpath would be covered with urine and stool, and people visited the BHU regularly.”
The entire village looks cleaner now, according to Lhamo. People look healthier and children don’t seem to fall sick that often. Footpaths are clean and the bad smell that used to linger around has disappeared. She strongly believes that 90 per cent of the time children’s health and wellbeing has got to do with hygiene.
For many old folks, the coming of improved toilets is an end of an era. They say life has become comfortable and respectable. Sixty-five-year-old Kezang Wangdi of Chokorling sums up this feeling the best.
“I can close the door of my toilet and use it for as long as I like. I don’t have to keep peeping through rags to make sure no one comes in or sing a song to signal that someone is using the toilet,” he says. “It is a peaceful, easy feeling now.”