Toilet Cleaning is as Important as Toilet Building

by Christiaan Morssink

Tools of the trade

Toilet cleaning and preventive maintenance are missing in almost all project proposals for WASH — water, sanitation and hygiene — in Schools or WASH in Health Care that I have read. We learn about upfront financing of the design and installation, including collecting fees at levels that will be enough for the replacement (lifecycle costing), and we learn about putting up money for the WASH curriculum, the behavioral part of using the facilities and teaching hygiene. We even address issues of disposables, like napkins, paper, and soap.  However, I myself have not yet seen preventive maintenance and cleaning as a project cost component. 

 WASH in schools requires a managerial component in which training in proper usage is a cornerstone of such social education movements like Global Hand Washing Day. That training is captured by many WASH curricula all over the world, each adapted to the socio-economic, environmental, and cultural traditions, including taboos. Other managerial components, often unaddressed, are skill development, storage of adequate supplies of maintenance and cleaning equipment, regimen of cleaning protocols and, most ignored, preventive maintenance and upkeep.

Knowing what chemicals to use is important: de-greasers are not to be used in bathrooms, but mildew removing chemicals are. Keeping tools clean and in good condition, testing the knowledge, and supervising the work are all critical components. When you have to bring a toilet brush to a village for show and tell during your third visit, after already having installed flush toilets, you know that maintenance and upkeep were ignored on the budget line items in the project proposal and project execution.

When you visit hand wash stations in schools, where the supply lines to all the faucets have been removed, and none of the sinks has a drain linking to a collection device, you know that maintenance has been so lax that eventually the whole system broke down. Often facilities are “incomplete.” I did not see trash cans in most facilities, saw no soap on a rope or soap in a bottle, saw no towels nor towel bars. What about supplies and spare parts? I do not know the French, Wolof, Hindi or Portuguese words for plungers, snakes, washers, floats, shut-off valves, wax rings, etc., and my companions, while fluent in nursing, public health, engineering, or education terminology, did not know what I meant. 

In many situations, maintenance and upkeep go hand in hand, and when done properly, can make the lifecycle of the “toilet block” exceptionally long indeed. In my own home, fifty-year-old toilets were replaced, not for breakdown, but for improved water consumption. In many public situations, like schools, markets, churches, clubs, management of “toilet blocks” is hampered by culture, traditions or simply lack of knowledge. “Latrine duty” or toilet cleaning chores should not be punishment, and, if used instead of hiring a contractor, should be democratic, honor-bound, and measured by well understood standards of “doing a good job.” It should be most of all an exercise of empowering the members of the community, as a collective, in the daily affairs of their environment. Just as we all train ourselves and our youngsters to keep our environment “green,” we should also keep our built environment “clean.”

A bathroom cleaning checklist could work wonders in such situations.

Dr. Morssink is the President of the Global Water Alliance and his interests are as varied and flowing as water itself, and include: the effects of the built environment on health, elimination of health disparities, hunger, and urban farming, and the campaign to ban and clear landmines and cluster bombs in communities around the world. Water is his first love.