Building Poverty


This story was provoked by discussions with the participants attending the World Habitat Award study tour in Nepal. The plot centres around one issue revealed in two very different settings: the struggle to build quality toilets in Nepal and, the tacit acceptance of poor standard housing currently being built for Indigenous people in remote areas around Australia.
The contrast between a poor and a rich country is obvious, less so is the common attitude that poor people deserve poor solutions. The core of this story is about the efficient and rationalised planning, building and maintenance of poverty.

The context in Nepal

The study tour resulted from Healthabitat (HH) winning the 2011 World Habitat Award. The Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF), Healthabitat and Nepal partners, Community Health and Development Society Nepal (CHDS) invited a group of housing, health, education and development specialists to visit the village sanitation project in Nepal and share information about the Australian work of HH and the work of the invited guests. The group was from a mix of countries – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, USA, the UK and Australia. This mix was important as the individuals represented a range of economic points of view and experience of the world’s contrasting north-south divide. Collectively this group had completed a wide variety of projects, over four decades in some cases. They knew a thing or two about development work.
The sanitation project was presented in detail by CHDS Nepal. They outlined the technical, financial and social structure of the program that disposes of human waste safely, provides a source of clean, free cooking fuel by producing biogas from the waste and has created long-term, paid employment for local villagers.
The group endorsed the social gains of the project but had more diverse opinions about the construction details. Most of these questions were answered the next day with a visit to the villages where the toilets were examined closely and the visitors talked to village families about the program.
The one lingering issue related to the cost of the toilet resulting from the quality of the design and construction.
Put simply, some thought the design solution was too expensive for poor people. The argument put forward was that if the quality was reduced and the unit cost was lower, more villagers would be able to benefit from the program. This was not unreasonable, and cost has been an important factor in both the design detail of the toilet and program delivery. What ‘cost’ is being referred to is the key point. The program has from the outset considered the broader goals of local employment, skill development and the ‘whole of life’ cost, not just initial capital cost in isolation. The program has focussed on investment rather than charity or benevolence.

The ‘cheap’ toilet

In Nepal, HH and our partners CHDS are constantly tripping over examples of non- government organisation solutions that favour the low initial capital cost toilet.
One example is the ‘$300 toilet’. It has an observed life of between zero and six months. How can the life of the toilet be zero? Given limited materials (1 x Asian style toilet pan, 5 cement rings, 2 bags of cement and 2 sheets of roofing iron or tiles) and instructions for making a toilet, the family must show initiative by finding the other materials required (for walling, roof structure and a privacy door) and provide the labour and skill to complete the toilet. Given that after the materials are handed out there is no further technical advice of support it is not surprising that only a few toilets are completed.
If completed, the toilet is a pit in the ground with no effective wastewater treatment. Within months, any absorption through the soil clogs, the pit fills and overflows. There will be no maintenance available and the toilet will be abandoned. There is no follow up inspection by the donor agency to assess toilet function or adequacy.

The ‘cheap’ toilet explained


The components of ‘Cost’ 

The capital cost of the HH/CHDS toilet is $1,500. This allows for a toilet building and either a septic tank or biogas waste treatment unit. Each building program will construct 10 toilets and have a mix of both waste treatment systems accordingly to each family’s situation. This price includes all labour, materials and management. Additional to this cost is a family cash contribution and ‘in-kind’ contribution of labour. A detailed look at the value of this investment follows.

The HH-CHDS toilet, wastewater disposal system and biogas plant explained


Whole of life cost

The cost of an HH-CHDS toilet is $1,500, the family cash contribution is $82 and the in-kind contribution for labour, transport materials to site and excavation is also valued at $82. The total initial or capital cost is $1,625.
If the $1,625 is seen as a 25-year investment this gives an annual base cost of $65.
The 25-year life will be achieved, by ensuring initial design, material and construction quality and ongoing maintenance. The current program has ongoing design development, quality control inspections at the handover of every round of 10 toilets and contracts each family to pay a monthly maintenance levy of $1.
This $12 a year maintenance cost added to the base cost investment will enable the safe removal and treatment of wastewater for $77 per year of a family group of, on average, 10 people.

Cost offsets

On the credit side of the calculation is the value of 4 hours of biogas produced each day over a month that may replace $5 of LP gas equivalent over a month. The high price LP gas has meant many families have had to use green timber for cooking leading to increased smoke in the living environment impacting particularly on children and women. This resulted in poor respiratory health noted by the villagers and the local hospital.
The availability of biogas also reduces the cutting of young trees for fuel. Maintaining trees reduces erosion and the catastrophic loss of the precious arable land owned by a family.
The use of high-quality fertiliser (not expensive chemical fertiliser) from the biogas plant residue has led to a family increasing yields from their spinach crop from $1 a day to $3 a day for 2 months of every year. This adds an additional $2 a day ($14 a week) for 8 weeks or $112 in income.
Whilst not every family in a village has the land or animals to make bio-gas feasible, around half the families in the current program have received biogas system and the combined impact on the village as whole of the above economic model is important and becoming more visible through house improvements, more smoke-free houses and reduced timber cutting.

Assessing the real cost of the ‘cheap’ alternative 

Taking the stated cost of the alternate ‘cheap’ toilet as around $300, the cost of materials provided by the donor / NGO would amount to at most $50 (see table below). The other $250 may either be used in program administration charges or village sanitation education programs by non-village ‘experts’ or be seen as the contribution by each family. How much of the stated budget ‘sticks’ in the village is not known.

Estimated material costs for the ‘cheap’ toilet

Cheap Costs

Equally important, is the ‘in-kind’ labour and materials needed from each family to complete the toilet. This financial model considers that the labour of the poor is either ‘free’ or essential to show commitment to the program.
For our purposes, we will value the labour of the villagers and add an ‘in-kind’ labour component of $43 (see table above). The cash contribution by each family needed for completion of the toilet is around $240.
Without skills and guidance, it is hard to see how the quality of the work could be equivalent to the HH-CHDS toilet. Part completed toilets observed in a number of villages would confirm this fact.

So, in summary, the costs are:
• Materials supplied – $42
• In-kind labour -$43
• A family cash contribution to complete the toilet – $240

The base cost of the toilet is then $325.

Now assume the following:

• A toilet life of 6 months with constant use given an average family of 10 and a toilet soakage chamber volume of approximately 2 cubic metres (or 2000 litres). This is calculated by assuming a 1-litre dip flush used 2 times a day by 10 people or 20 litres a day for 180 days. This would mean 3,600 litres passes into the soakage chamber and assume that approximately 40% (or 1,440 litres) is able to soak through the soil when the toilet is new, and the soil is porous. This leaves over 2,000 litres in the soakage chamber and it is full to overflowing.
• during the brief working life of the toilet, the human waste is disposed of safely,
• as the toilet fails, at the end of the 6 month period, there will be an equivalent program to provide replacement materials at the same base cost,
• the family is prepared to reconstruct the toilet every 6 months.

The cost of building 25 ‘cheap alternative’ toilets over 25 years to ensure the safe removal of waste would be over $8,000.
And there is not much on the credit side of the ledger: there is no employment, no skill development, no biogas and no increase in crop production.

As it was the plight of poor people that originally generated the idea of building cheap toilets, then the real cost of approximately $8,000, over 25 years, would not be available. As a result of these costs, the safe removal of human waste will be lost. More for the debit side include confusion and reinforcement of poverty, fuel costs, green timber cutting and smoke.
The health impacts of this toilet failure will continue.

Beyond cost – health, employment and skill development.

Any comparative assessment must also consider the health impacts of safely disposing of human waste, reducing smoke in the houses, the long-term employment of villagers and the skill development of the program management skills of the CHDS management team. These are all paid for by the program and included in the unit cost for each toilet.
Whilst these benefits are hard to medically quantify in poor, rural, Nepal villages there is little debate by public health or development professionals about their importance.

The so-called ‘cheap toilets’ will not spread the aid dollar further and help more poor people. The only thing spread will be untreated waste. Constant failure of these systems will reinforce that poor people are poor and their health will continue to decline despite the large sums of money spent. Evaluations, if ever they were conducted, would probably conclude that the toilets were not used properly by the residents and that education programs should be conducted to improve performance. The village will be considered to have a completed toilet program and therefore not eligible for future programs, or at the least, would have to lobby very hard for improvements.

The need for sanitation programs will remain constant. Each stage of the aid program process will be defensible using the current development jargon. “Community engagement, gender equity, climate change, capacity building, empowerment etc”
Poverty has been constructed as systematically as a brick wall is built one brick at a time.

The sanitation program in Nepal has to date built 82 toilets now used by more than 500 people. It demonstrates the wall of poverty can be dismantled by family participation, community leadership, quality design and construction, local skill development and employment, ongoing maintenance and carefully targeted money that ends up in the toilet program …not down the drain.

Remote Indigenous housing – an Australian contrast 

To contrast this with Australia, since 2008 the national Government, in partnership with state and territory governments, has been rolling out the largest remote Indigenous housing program in the country’s history. Over 10 years, $5.5bn will be spent building 4,200 houses and upgrading 4,800 houses. Put more simply, $5.5bn will be spent on 9,000 houses to improve the living conditions of an estimated 70,000 people. This equates to over $70,000 being spent per person. Given the discussion above about the importance of quality, HH would support this expenditure if the quality of the work was commensurate with the money being spent. Un-contested budget calculations by HH have shown that at least 50% of the funds are being spent on delivering the program and the other 50% on producing the houses. HH’s testing of houses nationally over the last two years has shown that both new and upgraded houses rarely provide the most basic functions such as safe electrical systems, a working shower, toilet and kitchen.
Polite requests by Indigenous communities, where this national program has been building and upgrading houses, for detailed function testing of the completed houses or the records of the final handover inspections have been met with no results and broad public statements about the large amounts of money spent. When this housing fails (and failure has been assured by poor construction standards, lack of local community involvement and no co-ordinated plan for ongoing maintenance), the poorest people in the country will be blamed for not valuing the ‘huge investment’ made in their well-being.
This is not an investment. This costly national program is an affirmation that Government considers that the poorest people in Australia deserve the poorest housing, regardless of the large amounts of money spent. This is development orthodoxy etched onto national policy, planning and actions.
Nepal differs from Australia in wealth, culture and landscape – however, the shared orthodox view of aid for the poor by both countries increases the risk of methodically building poverty, one poorly functioning house, or toilet, at a time.

Originally written by Paul Pholeros in November 2012

HH thanks the Building and Social Housing Foundation for sponsoring the World Habitat Award study tour to Nepal, CHDS Nepal for their work organising the tour, the participating villagers and construction teams. We also thank the many generous donors to the sanitation program from Australia and around the world who make the work in Nepal possible.