11 November 2012

World Toilet Day - Off the beaten track with a toilet....

It's World Toilet Day on November 19th (bear with me here). The aim of the day is to raise global awareness of the struggle 2.6 billion face every day without access to proper, clean sanitation.

Loo with a view - Khovsgol!
Toilets. Always high on the list of travel stories and experiences - especially the ones involving a dropped passport out of the back pocket into a long-drop pit toilet. In health and safety terms, toilets should have a risk assessment heading all of their own. Toilets, as the founder and principal guide of Eternal Landscapes, are strangely, always at the forefront of my mind.

Our itineraries focus on camping in the wild or using family operated ger camps. That means there is a lack of western style flush toilets (no bad thing, as frequently these are worse than the long-drop - I sense a nodding of heads in agreement and in a country where water sources are scarce use up a valuable resource). But what to do. Bury it. Pack it out. Don't care and just leave it under a rock. Then again, Mongolia is a country of herders owning up to 55 million head of livestock* - that's an incredible amount of dung so need we worry?

* 63 million as of  December 2016
Rush hour - that's one whole heap of dung right there!

Regarding our material waste, we follow the philosophy of pack it in and pack it out as much as possible - we do not bury or burn and we even clean up rubbish left by others and carry that out as well. Mongolia has very restricted waste disposal (frequently roadside dumps that are set on fire at random intervals) so we try to recycle (mainly plastic bottles, drinks cans and glass bottles).

However, pack it out is now the accepted norm for human waste as well. There you are.  First day of your  ten day Wilderness Trails hike in northern Mongolia. Nothing but you, your four clients, your two horse wranglers and five extremely lovable and strong-willed pack horses. It is recommended that you pack out your own waste in a strong sealed container to dispose of later - you can imagine the briefing, even better the loading and transportation issues especially when the horses (being the strong-willed type) often take a dislike to something on the trail (loud noise, sudden movement, falling leaf) and break loose and gallop off leaving a trail of equipment and strong sealed containers full of poo. Then there is the question of what do you do with it when there will be no flush toilets for at least 13 days and the first one you know you will come across is a communal one at a Soviet era hotel with bad plumbing?

Of course, there is now the Wag Bag, this is not a designer handbag purchased by a girlfriend of one of the UK's premier football team, but a toilet bag that is biodegradable and approved for landfill (a 12-pack weighs 3lbs, costs £34.91.....how many would you need for all the clients and staff for an entire season,  that's a whole heap of statistics waiting to give me a headache).

So. For now, I follow four guiding principles: avoid polluting water sources, eliminate contact with wild animals, maximize decomposition, and minimize the chances of social impacts. But in celebration of World Toilet Day, I've revised our practises.

From 2013, every client will be provided with a toilet bag- toilet paper, small hand trowel, biodegradable plastic bags (where possible) and an anti-bacterial hand-sanitiser. As we do now, small groups and/or in little visited areas will dig widely dispersed 'catholes' 6-8 inches deep. With our larger groups of eight and/or in more visited areas we dig a communal hole that all use - usually a loo with a truly remarkable view. If we can find biodegradable bags then we encourage clients to use them for their toilet paper, if we can't locate any then toilet paper is buried. Paper is never burnt as it rarely burns completely and for the main reason of starting a grassland or forest fire (and that's a whole heap of other trouble).

It took us a long time this autumn to find suitable trowels......the Gobi is hard-packed earth, dense forest cover is perfect apart from where you hit a root, tussocks are a nightmare. We bought a surplus supply.

 And then there is the question of what do you do when it's minus 20, you have your trowel and the land is frozen.....Told you, toilets are always at the forefront of my mind. Cash-flow forecast. Staff training. Toilets.

November the 19th. World Toilet Day. I bet you didn't know there was so much to think about....!