The heir to the Dutch throne was in the small eastern village of Rhenen on Queen’s Day, April 30, where he entered – and won – a traditional village game of toilet-bowl tossing.
Well, I guess we have Morris dancing which is vastly more embarrassing.
But speaking at a function [not a bodily one we hope] in Rotterdam on Wednesday, the prince admitted he felt ashamed when hurling the orange-coloured ceramic potty given the lack of proper sanitary conditions in the developing world.
“Here in the Netherlands there are towns that take part in the throwing of toilet-bowls for a laugh,” he said.
“I participated with a smile, but not without shame in thinking about the some 2.6 billion people around the world that do not have this most basic infrastructure to fulfil a daily need with dignity.”
And therein lies the rub. It isn’t basic infrastructure in the sense of simple infrastructure. Here is a bit from Wikipedia on one of my Victorian heroes… You know those folks who built the modern world like George Stephenson and Nikola Tesla.
At the time, the Thames was little more than an open sewer, devoid of any fish or other wildlife, and an obvious health hazard to Londoners. Bazalgette’s solution (similar to a proposal made by painter John Martin 25 years earlier) was to construct 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of underground brick main sewers to intercept sewage outflows, and 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of street sewers, to intercept the raw sewage which up until then flowed freely through the streets and thoroughfares of London. The outflows were diverted downstream where they were dumped, untreated, into the Thames. Extensive sewage treatment facilities were built only decades later.
The scheme involved major pumping stations at Deptford (1864) and at Crossness (1865) on the Erith marshes, both on the south side of the Thames, and at Abbey Mills (in the River Lea valley, 1868) and on the Chelsea Embankment (close to Grosvenor Bridge; 1875), north of the river.
The system was opened by Edward, Prince of Wales in 1865, although the whole project was not actually completed for another ten years.
Bazalgette’s foresight may be seen in the diameter of the sewers. When planning the network he took the densest population, gave every person the most generous allowance of sewage production and came up with a diameter of pipe needed. He then said ‘Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen’ and doubled the diameter to be used. His foresight allowed for the unforeseen increase in population density with the introduction of the tower block; with the original, smaller pipe diameter the sewer would have overflowed in the 1960s [that would have brought meant the stinking '60s rather than the swinging ones - George Harrison would have been in his wellies rather than barefoot on that album cover crossing Abbey Road], rather than coping until the present day as it has.
The unintended consequence of the new sewer system was to eliminate cholera not only in places that no longer stank, but wherever water supplies ceased to be contaminated by sewage. The basic premise of this expensive project, that miasma spread cholera infection, was wrong; however, instead of this causing the project to fail, the new sewers succeeded in virtually eliminating the disease by removing the contamination.
[the good old "right for the wrong reason"].
Bazalgette’s capacity for hard work was remarkable; every connection to the sewerage system by the various Vestry Councils had to be checked and Bazalgette did this himself and the records contain thousands of linen tracings with handwritten comments in Indian ink on them “Approved JWB” “I do not like 6″ used here and 9″ should be used. JWB” and so on. It is perhaps not surprising that his health suffered as a result. The records are held by Thames Water in large blue binders gold-blocked reading “Metropolitan Board of Works” and then dated, usually two per year.
So, it isn’t simple. The richest and greatest city the World has ever seen only managed it by 1875 and then only via much kicking and screaming and even then the effective treatment of sewage took much longer to achieve. And it only started when the stink reached parliament. A jaundiced chap like me might suggest these days that is were the Dame Judiths come from. These are massive civil works and it is naive beyond belief that a toilet alone constitutes sanitation. When my parents worked in Zambia before I was born Kenneth Kaunda, one of the less murderous despots of that benighted continent (and he was up against some stiff opposition with the likes of Idi Amin – my parents had Indian friends and smuggled gold out of Uganda – the border guards were easy to bribe if you had Marlboros and Scotch and some USD anyway after a couple of swigs of The Quickening they wouldn’t give a toss if you had 10kgs of cocaine a murdered hooker and a Picasso in the boot of the car).
And herein lies the fundamental point about the developing world. It is poor because it is poor. It is poor because the infrastructure Dutch crown-princes take for granted is neither obvious nor simple. It is fundamental but that is not the same thing as simple. It’s just an engineering problem. “Just”? Tell that one to the shade of Kelly Johnson because you’d leave with your teeth in a paper bag. It’s like the old saw from the ’80s about the planet producing enough food to feed everyone – you “just” need to distribute it – yeah now if I could master that TESCO would be scared. It just isn’t that simple. You need distribution and that means roads and service stations and motor dealerships and that means electricity and reasonably uncorrupt courts and building storm drains and sewers and railways and airports and getting investment done without having to pay grand an hour hookers. Modernity cannot be achieved one system at a time because all systems interlink. How do you run a railway if the phone network is pants? How do you install or maintain a phone network if the roads are dreadful? How do you persuade the skilled people to stay in such countries and not take-up that offer from Japan if the lifestyle is medieval and you have to shit in a bucket and chuck it out the window?
Moreover it’s like some of the demented anti HIV/AIDS campaigns. Let’s roll-out anti-retrovirals like smarties to Africa pro-bono (and also pro the ego of Bono). Won’t work. These are powerful drugs and they need doctors to prescribe them and check things and adjust specific doses of the cocktail and some drugs need refrigeration and that means electricity and trucks and roads for the getting them about and…
I guess what I am saying is you can’t just have toilets. Or cake. You have to have the full nine yards. There is a model and it is capitalism. It’s not an especially quick fix (though alleged quick fixes do more harm than good) but, I dunno, the Republic of Korea went in much less than a lifetime from medieval poverty to being a high-tech wonderland. This is because capitalism distributes resources efficiently and widely so unlike Mao and his war on sparrows which led to the Great Leap Backwards. It’s tough but it works.
Here endeth the lesson.