Measuring, Testing, and Educating at the Household Level

by Dr. Christiaan Morssink

© pam lazos

The household is an important data point in the world of WASH — water, sanitation and hygiene — on many levels. In the home of my youth, the WC — the water closet — was a very tiny space, with a cistern high up the wall and a small window, also high, for privacy — “like in an old prison,” my father the police officer used to remark. The window was always open because in those days other ventilation was not available, nor were deodorizing sprays. The cistern brand was Niagara. Indeed, it was a loud affair, flushing that is. Having been to Niagara Falls, I resent the brand as a grotesque appropriation.

It is a collective extension of the individual water literacy level where behaviors are shaped and acculturated, where aging and water knowing and transfer of knowing takes place, where we learn of the WASH issues around gender and gender’s way of knowing; where privacy and decency and dignity are learned and engrained. In the household we learn to share water and facilities, we learn a thing or two about cleaning and staying clean. We learn of (food) hygiene in the kitchen and pantry, in the use of basins, wash cloths, bathing facilities and commodes. We learn of WASH re: pets, husbandry, and wildlife.

© pam lazos

Whether in rural or urban settings, whether in homes on water/boats, wheels, tents, or other shelter systems used by nomads, it’s the household where WASH literacy is most significantly structured, acculturated and disseminated. When shower stalls became standard in the working-class homes in Northern Europe in the forties and fifties, it took a while to get folks to switch the large metal basin they used for bathing in the kitchen to these new shower stalls. The space had previously been used for storage, sleeping arrangements for babies, or even as punishment as in getting a cold shower.

Barring a few items for personal use, like umbrellas, bottles, raincoats, bathing suits, flasks,  handkerchiefs, etc., the whole consumer market for WASH is geared around the household. With the toilet, the tub, stall, or kitchen sink come accessories, maintenance materials, clean up tools and repair kits that cater to the users as members of a household. These markets are huge and the WASH sections in supermarkets and in hardware stores have always dedicated aisles for these products. In the open-air market of Accra, Ghana, several blocks are dedicated to this exchange of goods for WASH. All catering to those of the household who “clean, maintain, and use” the facilities.

credit: Lavatory Legend: The Real Story Of Thomas Crapper, Farmers Almanac, (1.28.21)

Good water literacy at the household level is not only important but necessary to keep systems operational. An article in the Guardian illustrates the dramatic problems that may result from under-educating and under-estimating the effect of household literacy in and on WASH. The London sewers have been around for an exceedingly long time, but some consumer habits ( in kitchens and bathrooms) in the now rather affluent city of London have changed to such an extent that a new call for education of the household is in order otherwise the sewer systems beneath the city will not survive.

Water literacy at the household level is also relevant because almost all data on infrastructure in any nation are set in the confines of a household. Census data, all mapping, all real estate taxes, all cadastre; all address listings, all service providers (gas, water, electricity, internet, you name it) rely on addresses as part of a person’s identity. Your life expectancy is in large measure informed by where you live and the conditions in which your household lives. The plumbers never repair my faucet or open up my drain. They open up our drain, repair our faucet, leaving it to us in the household to lay blame, to learn and to check on each other. 

As the manager of a large water supply company in Texas said during the icy disaster that befell his service area in February 2021: “ We have 1.4 million customers that are in deep trouble and we do not know when we and they are going to have restored services and who will pay for the damages and breakdown of our services. AND BTW, THAT MEANS ABOUT 4.5 MILLION PEOPLE.” The household/commercial entity/office is the smallest unit in the infrastructure world of WASH. 

© pam lazos

In terms of governance, the literacy level at the household is more important than the individual literacy level. People as individuals are eligible to vote in this or that election, but do so on the basis of their address, as part of their nationality, age, jurisdiction, and other criteria to vote. Taxation systems and subsidy systems for WASH related issues are set at the household level. Water bills are to be paid on the basis of usage by the household, not by an individual. Shutting off the water supply affects the whole home and all those living in it.  Eviction notices are for the whole household, never an individual. As these issues pertain to water, it is for the whole of the household to figure out what to do about them. 

Most teenagers in high school know in great detail the prices of the latest sneakers, and popular brands of clothing. However, there is almost always  a 100% non-answer when I ask them: What’s your family’s water bill like? What do they pay and how many kilowatt hours do you guys use on average per month? They look at me blankly. Kilowatt hours?? Water consumption and pricing is not discussed at the kitchen table. Nor for that matter, electricity or gas use. Paying those bills are great opportunities for improving education on water beyond health, wellness, and recreation.

And so it goes. Our youngsters may have good ideas about their and our water footprint, our practices regarding flushing, saving shower water and cloth washing water for gardening, and may even opine all they want about installing waterless toilets, but it’s the “head of the household” and the government’s building inspector’s codes that inform what’s possible, what’s legal, what’s tolerated, and what’s worthwhile trying. Water literacy at the household level is a crucial moment in all that is part of the management of the watershed.

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