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The Case for Pay Toilets (in Portland, Oregon)

This is an opinion piece on pay toilets. It was written for the PHLUSH blog in response to an article published in the Portland Mercury called When You Gotta Go. This post talks about my experiences using pay toilets in Europe, and it suggests a similar model could be implemented in Portland, Oregon.

A recent trip to Europe made me question the American way of feeling entitled to pee for free. After helping local sanitation group PHLUSH with two great summer events, I traveled out of the country with my partner while he completed company training. As Rose George said in The Big Necessity  “once you notice something, you notice it everywhere. Our most basic bodily function, and how we choose to deal with it, leaves signs everywhere entwined with everything, as intricately  intimate with human life as sewers are with the city.” So I noticed toilets on this trip abroad  – in the train stations of Germany and on the main squares of Italy. They were everywhere, and they typically cost money to use.

Two short toilet vignettes:

Germany: Avoiding the cramped airplane toilet during the flight to Germany, I really had to go after landing. I rushed to the main station to catch a train. Temporary WCs (the others under construction) were located on Track 3, and the sign said € .50. An attendant took my money and ushered me to a stall. Instead of walking into the usual stinky portable toilet, I was welcomed by a sparkling commode and sink.


Above Photo: L.Wilms on Wikimedia Commons.

Italy: It turns out € .50 wasn’t enough in Venice. We took a shared water bus from the airport to the city, which is man-made above a lagoon. Inside the bus station, I found the WC. The cost was €1.50. I really had to go, so I put some money in the turnstile and entered. This toilet was like most others I had experienced in Europe: private [unlike many North American stalls], fresh, and clean.


Above Photo: Public toilet in San Polo. Durant and Cheryl Imboden.

At the beginning of this month-long trip, I often thought indignantly “why do I have to pay to use the WC everywhere?”. The expensive Venetian toilets were especially disconcerting. But I slowly began to appreciate the cleanliness and availability of toilets. Toilet supplies like paper and soap were always available, floors were un-littered, and toilet seats were clean and dry. You could usually find a toilet within walking distance, and the fees helped maintain the toilets and pay attendants. For the most part, I became a pay-toilet believer.

After reading the article When You Gotta Go about the lack of public toilets in Portland, I wondered “could the pay toilet model provide some relief to Portland?” The article stated there were few public toilets in the city and many were unpleasant. The Portland Loos are serviced by Clean and Safe, but there are only five of them and a handful of other tax-supported toilet locations. Some businesses downtown have public toilets, but they are only usable by clients and customers. If the City of Portland built pay toilets in central shopping locations downtown, many visitors could afford to use them. Perhaps the income from the toilets could also provide additional revenue to an organization like Clean and Safe.

Of course, there would be a few hurdles when moving forward with pay toilets in Portland. Some toilets would need to continue to be [low cost and/or] free for those with no money. This would be in alignment with the United Nations Resolution that “clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights”. Pay toilets could be provided by businesses alongside the free toilets that are mandated by occupancy-based building codes, but the American Restroom Association website points out that the National Model Building Code “does not allow pay toilets unless mandated toilets are also available without charge”. Finally, the public would need to be re-conditioned to see the value of paying to pee. But I believe the last hurdle would be quickly overcome after each person has their first experience in a clean-smelling, supply-rich, convenient toilet during a harrowing day in the big city.

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general

Water for the Ages Gets a Brand New (out)Look

Start: In September 2007, I decided to create a blog to better understand global water problems with the hope of finding solutions. I built the Water for the Ages blog as a place to compile water-related information and write posts about global water issues. This blog also surprisingly became a place to communicate with other passionate H20 people from around the world.

Reach: Soon after starting it, I enrolled in a graduate program in Water Resources Management to learn more about global issues. I lived and blogged in India for several months while conducting research, and I completed a thesis on empowerment in water and sanitation. India changed me. After coming home, I wondered how one young, white girl from North America could ever make a tangible difference. I didn’t want to be another person with an imperialistic agenda.


Above Photo: Hidden Me Blogging in 2009

Grow: Over the past year, I blogged little while doing a quite a bit. I worked in the renewable energy sector with the hope of learning about the energy-water nexus. I volunteered with an amazing sanitation advocacy group called PHLUSH. I received a scholarship to attend a graduate program in Environmental Sociology at University of California. The most difficult of all, I engaged in self growth.

Learn: I eventually realized that people can solve problems best when they work together, each person has different useful strengths, communication is everything, and it’s important to “be me”. So now I’m in Santa Cruz preparing for my graduate program, and I figured it was a great time to revitalize Water for the Ages. When I signed on, the many comments from inspiring people over the past few months reminded me that I was on the right track.

Ta Da: So I present to you the new-and-improved Water for the Ages blog. I even added a nifty calendar on the upper left right which shows you important global water and sanitation events. I imported this information from IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre and UN Water. I can’t promise how regularly I’ll be blogging, but I figured resources here are handy. I’m remembering – it’s the little things that count.

conference, politics, water events

Water, Sanitation, and the 2010 G8 Summit

From June 25 to June 26, leaders from eight of the “major advanced economies” in the world will converge for the G8 Summit in Canada to discuss important matters. PM Harper from Canada said this year’s Summit will focus on “key challenges related to development, and international peace and security.” All priority issues for the Summit – development, the health of mothers,/newborns/children, food security, Africa, and peace/security – relate to water and sanitation.

The Canadian G8 Website states that health issues “will be accomplished by helping developing countries strengthen their health systems and improve access to: health care, trained health workers, family planning, attended childbirth, better nutrition, clean drinking water and sanitation, and the means to prevent and treat diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea.”

One problem with past G8 Summits is the difficulty of deciphering what has been discussed during the private meetings and how this information will ‘trickle down’ to policies in both participating and non-participating nations. One group, called the G8 Research Group, is working to provide more information on proceedings of G8 Summits. Maybe this year they will cover some of the discussions on water and sanitation? Their website states:

“Unlike other multilateral meetings, leaders at the G8 Summit meet privately behind closed-doors; there are no aides or intermediaries and there are few scripts or protocols. The decisions made by the G8 have global ramifications and the reach and scope of its influence in the world cannot be denied.”

Still, each year, G8 Summits provide an opportunity for civil-society organizations to coalesce and urge respective governments to talk about issues that matter to them. A number of groups are focusing on water and sanitation at the G8 in 2010. Interaction, a coalition of 180 NGOs working to alleviate global poverty, has prepared a brief on water and sanitation that calls for the US Government to be vocal on water and sanitation at the Summit.

Canadian organizations including UNICEF Canada and Care Canada and Plan Canada and RESULTS Canada and Save the Children Canada and World Vision Canada state that the Canadian Government should “…address preventive measures such as adequate diet through breastfeeding, nutritional supplementation/fortification and access to clean water and sanitation.”

And a G8 World Religions Summit of global religious leaders began yesterday at the University of Winnipeg. Leaders represent Christianity, Judaism, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Islamic, Shinto and indigenous faiths. This alternative Summit will be aired live online here. They hosted a water-ceremony on the opening day of this alternative Summit. For more information on last year’s G8 Summit and water (and sanitation), please see this blog post. Updates on water and sanitation discussions at the Summit will be added as they become available.

UPDATE (29 July 2010):

On the 26th of June, leaders from G8 countries wrapped up the summit and issued a Declaration. They pledged support towards meeting Millennium Development Goals. They affirmed a common desire to achieve aid-effectiveness for development in Africa. They discussed the importance of meeting MDG 4 reducing child mortality and MDG 5 maternal health, but did not indicate water and sanitation as integral to such efforts anywhere in the main Declaration.

They launched the Muskoka Initiative to further progress on meeting MDGs 4 and 5  and linked this Initiative to MDGs 1 (childhood nutrition) and 6 (HIV/AIDS, malaria). They mentioned the importance of drinking water and sanitation once stating “relevant actions in the field of safe drinking water and sanitation” among other things are important towards meeting the aforementioned MDGs. But they did not identify a link between MDGs 4 and 5 to MDG No. 7 to halve the population without drinking water or sanitation.

Many NGOs including World Vision feel the Muskoka Initiative is under-funded with 5 billion pledged towards meeting these commitments with half of that amount from Canada). Here is a good review of different NGOs and their take on the Summit and subsequent Initiative.