Published 2007-06-14

In the last year I generated a hypothesis about global attitudes toward shit:

“A person’s aversion to fecal matter is inversely proportional to their cultural distance from England.”

Most of Asia smells much of the time like shit. Even spick-and-span Singapore. I don’t know how many times I’m sitting with a group of expats and a few locals at an outdoor eatery when a rich aroma of shit wafts in from the [ sea | gutter | lagoon | river ]. The Anglo-Saxons — stereotypically the Brits — take this almost as a personal affront: “How dare this rural city in a developing country smell like shit! Don’t they know there are English speakers living here?” Aussies, Kiwis, Canucks and Americans grit their teeth and pinch their noses. Continentals and Asians are utterly nonplussed. “Of course it smells like shit. Doesn’t the entire world?”

It’s interesting that the stereotypical Peace Corps project is digging a well. NGO fieldworkers often use western-style toilets as a barometer of a project’s boondoggleness. That is, if an organization is installing privies or flush toilets in a teeny village, you can be pretty sure they don’t know what they’re doing. Because there are so many other things that the villagers would rather have than plumbing. Such as mobile phones, electricity, satellite TV, and Internet access. Probably in that order. Thus vast slums in which everyone craps in the gutter while chatting on their mobiles. When my grandparents modernized the farm in the 1930s, I bet they added telephone then electricity and then indoor plumbing.

In terms of relative value, you gain much more from a mobile phone or even satellite TV than sewage treatment. A cel phone is cheap, reliable, disposable, and provides enormous social and business benefits. Sewage treatment is expensive, centralized, and requires massive maintenance, without which it rapidly becomes worse than the non-system (ditch-crapping) it replaces. And its benefits are diffuse and abstract. Yeah, I’m less likely to get cholera at some unspecified point in the future, but with the mobile phone I can talk to my mom in the home village right now. If you only have a little money to spend on self-improvement, where will you put it: pool it with everyone else in the slum and get sewage treatment sometime next year, or buy yourself a mobile phone now?

This is one reason the Information Revolution is not going away, Peak Oil be damned. The corollary is that, in the long view, information work is much easier to outsource than manufacturing, and more likely to stay outsourced.

Other fun Asian sewage facts:

  • Asian sewage smells different from American sewage. More cabbagy and ammoniac, less eggy.
  • The solid bits in sewage turn liquid really quickly. When I was first confronted with open sewers I expected them to be full of chunks but, what the hey, it’s all liquid? And not actually brown but kind of an algal black?
  • Asian plumbers don’t use gooseneck gas traps. Ever! This is because they don’t vent the exhaust to the roof (as in America). Squat toilets, urinals, and the open drain in our bathroom are pretty much open pipes to the city sewer. In our bathroom we fight this odor by pouring a little bleach down the drain.
  • It’s pretty safe to eat fish caught near sewage outlets. Cook the hell out of them first, though. Fish caught near industrial waste outlets? Not so much.