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The Big Necessity – Rose George ****

Strictly, this book shouldn’t be here at all as there’s not a lot of science in it – but taking the original, wider definition of scientia, I certainly feel that I gained a fair amount of knowledge from Rose George’s excellent book, on a subject that certainly needs more exposure than it usually gets – the essential job of dealing with human waste.
Of course there is a lot of science in the subject, but George’s book concentrates on the practical – it’s more about the engineering and sociology than the pure science. She’s at her best when describing excursions down the sewers with the men who work there, or venturing into water treatment plants.
At the heart of the book is the horrendous statistic that 2.6 billion people don’t have sanitation – not even a trench latrine – terrible because there’s no point giving access to clean water if someone can’t get away from their faeces. Equally fascinating to western eyes was the amazing story of the Japanese ‘high function’ toilet with seated seat and wash and dry features.
If I have a complaint it’s that there was a bit too much on China and Africa, and that George over-emphasizes the solids. She spends ages on the flush toilet, but hardly mentions urinals – perhaps because she hasn’t been exposed to them in all their wondrous variety. This combination of little problems means surprisingly (given she apparently wrote the book there) she doesn’t mention France, with it’s slowly dying penchant for stand-up/squat toilets, and its lack of concern about screening urinals from view. We read a lot about the lack of cubicle doors in China, but nothing about a European nation that thinks nothing of sticking a urinal unshielded on the outside of a beach building.
Even so, it’s an excellent read with surprises at every turn – or should that be in every U-bend?
Review by Brian Clegg


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