I’ve begun to develop a love hate relationship with my thesis. Hate because I’ve discovered the pain of the IRB process and the qualms of doing human research. But love because I have a reason to study shit, cholera, and Haiti at all times of the day without looking clinically insane to the rest of my friends. What I value most about this research process though, is the ability to learn. Research makes a person uncomfortable because it shows them how much they don’t know and how far they have to go. The only success I’ve had so far is pushing further into the discomfort and overcoming everything I thought I knew about the sanitation system in Haiti.  

I’ve come across a number of interesting points throughout my research and my review of literature but the most compelling point I’ve found was from Jessica Barry, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross. When discussing solutions for the sanitation crisis she pointed out perhaps the most overlooked issue in sanitation – “you can have over 100,000 toilets but you need a way to remove the excrement”.

I was in the library scrolling through a number of reports about sanitation when I came across this quote and I remember stopping as soon as I came across this line. I had never thought of sanitation in this way. What always came to mind with sanitation was toilets or pit latrines and the idea that the presence of these could fix everything. We never want to think about the aftermath, preferring to address the issue of open defecation rather than the processing and treatment of waste. We think that if someone has a bucket, the problem ceases to exist, so household latrines and public restrooms are brought to slums around the world and we receive instant gratification because the problem of open defecation is solved.

This was the case in Haiti in October 2010 when UN workers from Nepal dumped their waste into the Artibonite River, the main water source across Haiti. Given the already exhausted sanitation system and nothing to do with the waste, cholera spread across the country infiltrating cities and towns, building on the post quake devastation. The cholera outbreak again redirected the NGOs and nonprofits back to short-term solutions, setting up cholera treatment centers and bringing barrels of clean water to communities. These are helpful in the short run, but the point of development is not to make countries dependent on aid, rather it is to help them develop systems of infrastructure that are sustainable and long lasting.

Short-term development opportunities mask the chronic problems that have led to the unequal world we live in. Instead of offering a homeless person a sandwich, question the societal structure that has forced them on the streets to beg for food. Instead of donating money to causes that help refugees across the Mediterranean, question how we have allowed the massacre of human rights to continue for so long. Instead of treating someone for cholera, ask why they have no other choice but to drink from water contaminated with their neighbor’s feces. Our lives should be like research, constantly questioning what we know rather than continuing to go with what we believe.

The need for innovation and research in the WASH sector is extreme, as is the need for awareness. Sanitation is more than just shit. It’s a complex ecological system that, when done right, provides dignity to an individual, ensures consistent clean water, and a state of living that is disease and free.