Flushing away rural schools' toilet misery

Flushing away rural schools' toilet misery

Rong Jiaojiao/China Features
Students in Pingle Middle School are learning how to wash hands properly.
UNICEF/China/2012/Liu Xu
18 January 2013

For 14-year-old Yu Wenmin, answering nature's call at school used to be a nightmare.

"Our school toilet never needed a sign, you could just tell where it was by your nose," says Yu, of Anlong Middle School in southwest China's Guizhou Province.

The toilet at Anlong Middle School of Anlong County was the typical rural kind without any flushing or hand-washing facilities. All the excrement used to be gouged away once a semester. With only this occasional improvement, the facilities for the school's 396 students were merely a foul, smelly dumping ground.

"When I used the toilet, I had to hold my breath, step firmly on the verge of the pit and squat, not daring to see what's down there," frowns Yu.

No longer. In September 2012, the old toilet at Anlong Middle School was renovated into a modern one with flushing and hand-washing facilities. A private room is also available in the ladies' bathroom for female sanitation.

"It's so clean and convenient. I no longer need to worry about falling down into the toilet," says a beaming Yu.

The improvement is among a number of sanitary upgrades to the school this semester, results of a project linking three pilot schools in Anlong with UNICEF and the All-China Women's Federation since February 2012. Through creating a safe and sustainable environment, the scheme aims to increase awareness of personal hygiene and environmental protection among rural kids.

So besides the toilet, Yu also found other changes in and around the classroom. A solar heating system was set up in bathrooms; electronic kettles and cups are placed in classrooms so that students can drink hot water in winter. A special field was created for growing vegetables and raising hens to add more nutrition to students' school lunches.

UNICEF is aware that toilet facilities and attitudes toward personal hygiene in more remote Chinese provinces continues to lag behind the situation in cities. As such, it is targeting expanding its program to more schools across the nation.

"People are ashamed of toilets, especially in rural China," says Dr. Yang Zhenbo, UNICEF water and sanitation specialist. "Toilets are seen as a filthy place and people refuse to invest much in them when they build new houses or new schools.

"But actually, toilets are very important in terms of building a healthy and sustainable future for children." 

A 2012 joint report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization showed the importance of spending yuan on "spending a penny." The research indicated that 36 percent of China's population, or 477 million Chinese, have no access to safe toilets, classified as those which separate human excreta from human contact.

According to the report, a single gram of human excreta can contain 10 million virus particles and 1 million bacterium. Excreta can also lead to the spread of diarrhoea, one of the leading causes of death among children under five, and intestinal worms, which contribute to malnutrition and hold back physical and mental growth.

A lack of toilets remains one of the leading causes of illness and death among children. UNICEF estimates that around 2 million kids worldwide die each year from pneumonia and diarrhoea, illnesses which are largely preventable with improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene.

UNICEF funded the toilet renovation project at Pingle Middle School of Anlong County, Guizhou Province.
UNICEF/China/2012/Liu Xu
UNICEF funded the toilet renovation project at Pingle Middle School of Anlong County, Guizhou Province.

Zhang Min, head of Waina Elementary School of Waina Village, one of the pilot schools, was impressed to see how the project has changed all the school's 33 students, most of whom come from poverty-stricken families.

"In the old days, students didn't wash their hands after going to the toilet, simply because we didn't have hand-washing facilities," says Zhang. "Now they not only know how to wash their hands, but also how to save water by using flushing water to water vegetables."

Students are also influencing their parents and making more villagers aware of the importance of personal hygiene and environmental protection, according to Wei Jun, deputy director of the Guizhou Women's Federation, UNICEF's local partner.

"Some villagers told me that their children will remind them about washing hands before meals, and teach them how to wash hands. Some children also work out energy-saving solutions for the family," she adds.

After visiting the pilot schools, Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF's representative to China, was very impressed. She noted that the sites are a great model for other rural schools to copy.

"We are really delighted to see how the schools are implementing this new concept of what we call 'sustainable, sanitary and safe schools,' and I think these schools we see in Anlong County are really excellent models for other schools to copy," she says.

"Together with the Chinese government, we want to roll this model out across China so that more rural children can benefit from the approach."