Water, Eco-Tourism and the Westerner

Restroom in Swahili, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

Eco-tourism is a popular travel option now.  But one area I feel the eco-tour operators fail to educate their customers about is water and toilets.

Developing countries rely on cash-rich tourists to visit.  But to create an infrastructure that will support large numbers of tourists, finite resources such as water are shifted away from the local population to appease the nearly insatiable tourist palate.

When I moved to the Middle East, I was as guilty as most Westerners complaining about how inefficient the toilets were.  I did not know why women filled the wastebasket next to the toilet with toilet paper.  Nor did I understand the signs that said “Do Not Throw Paper Towels in the Toilet.”

To me paper towels meant the heavy type used in the kitchen or to dry your hands.  I did not realize the owners were talking about toilet paper, or toilet tissue, or Kleenex or whatever else you might call paper used to wipe our bottoms.

It was after the Sewerage Truck backed into our driveway and began to pump out our villa’s septic tank that I began to understand the bigger issue – we live in a desert.  Water is scarce.

Masai Village in Tanzania

In Tanzania where we took sneaky snapshots of tall Masai herding their boney cattle across the nearly desert landscape, their lack of water hardly affected us.  We could pay for airlifted bottles of water ported in our van’s cooler and flushing toilets in air conditioned guest rooms.  The Masai’s daily search for water never touched our experience.

At the Tarangire Game Reserve I popped into the government supported latrine before we embarked on our four hour safari.  A busload of American tourists followed me.

The modern, made-for-tourist bathrooms had several stalls, sinks, and mirrors.  The toilets had just enough water to clear the bowl.

Next door to me I heard the woman flush the toilet several times.  She came out of the stall and apologized to her waiting friend,

“Sorry I could not get the toilet to flush the paper down.”

I could not hold my tongue.  I said to her and the dozen other women waiting,

“There is hardly enough water here for the people to drink let alone flush a toilet.  Just carry your used toilet paper out with you and throw it in the trashcan.  And only flush the toilet when it is absolutely necessary.”

Coming from America where we reclaim toilet water making it drinkable again, the idea had never crossed their minds.

“Thanks for telling us,” one woman said genuinely grateful.

Why am I writing about this?

Because when I see a clean toilet bowl clogged up by a mass of toilet paper, I realize another uneducated Westerner has been there.  Is it necessary to flush the toilet after a pee?  And why throw masses of toilet paper in the bowl?  It takes two or three flushes to clear the paper and taxes the septic system.

Unlike the West where we are unaccustomed to using bidets, I believe the Arabs and the Indians wash with the water hose next to the toilets.  Then they use a small amount of paper to dry themselves and throw that in the trash bin next to the toilet.

Masai walking alongside of the highway, Tanzania

I am uncertain what the best method is, but in desert countries like Bahrain where water reclamation does not exist and 98% of the sewage is pumped just offshore into the ocean, introducing less garbage into the water system seems like the best solution.

National Geographic did a great story on “Water: Our Thirsty World” in April 2010.

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