World Toilet Day Has a Different Meaning in Chicago

There is more than one important holiday this week. Monday was World Toilet Day.

Reading this in the relatively developed world, especially in the relatively clean and sterile world of modern America, we might be tempted to stifle a tiny chuckle before moving on to seemingly bigger things.

But consider this: the contamination of water is one of the fastest growing threats to life as we know it on this planet. And a significant part of that water contamination comes from human sewage, contributed by lack of adequate (or even, any) toilet systems that plague a HUGE number of cities, villages, hamlets, settlements and homes. The reality of inadequate sewage systems and inaccessibility to adequate and safe toilets is a devastating limitation for human life and dignity, as well as the health of the planet.

Consider that in many countries, the lack of toilets makes education of women impossible, because lack of private toilets in large swaths of the developing world, with impacts on democracy, quality of life, equity, infant mortality and tragic suffering. That is nothing to laugh at.

World Toilet Day casts a light on this Global reality, as well as the ready availability of an infrastructural fix.

And here in Chicago, we should take note. After all, we sit on the throne of what might be the biggest leaking WC in the United States.

Since we reversed the flow of the Chicago River more than a century ago, Lake Michigan creates the tank that flushes our waste thousands of miles away into the Gulf of Mexico. It is a massive system, that turned two of the biggest and most important fresh water systems in the western hemisphere into mere plumbing and one of the world’s most productive fisheries into a giant septic tank, since our…ummm…nutrients are one of the biggest single contributors to the Gulf Dead Zone. But it does not have to be that way. 

Steps have begun to lessen the burden. Chicago’s regional water authority, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), made the historic decision (with the nudge of lawsuits and looming implications of legal wins from NRDC and a coalition of like-minded groups) to end the practice of dumping “undisinfected effluent” into the Chicago River from their treatment plants. That sewage, rife with bacterial human waste, currently makes up to 70% of the flow in parts of the waterway system. The commitment to disinfect the sewage is the right thing to do.

There is more to be done. NRDC, Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers are suing MWRD to do something about that nutrient flow from their water treatment plants, which acts like fertilizer in the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to grow algae and feed the expanding Dead Zone in the Gulf. (NRDC is also representing the Mississippi River Collaborative in a suit against the EPA over nonenforcement of similar issues throughout the watershed). And the combined storm water and sanitary sewers that dump filth into the system every time we get an inch and a half of rain require significant action from both the City of Chicago and the MWRD. Because of these shortcomings in our sewer system, homes flood with waste, the Chicago, Illinois and Mississippi Rivers flow with sewage, the Great Lakes are threatened, and the Gulf of Mexico is host to an area the size of Connecticut that is uninhabitable for most sea life.

While we celebrate the civilizing influence of indoor plumbing on International Toilet Day, there is nothing civil about the Greater Chicago Region dumping intestinal miasma on our southward neighbors… We should not need a holiday highlighting the serious needs of the Third World to highlight the imperative to fix the plumbing of a glorious World Class city. Here in Chicago, that is no laughing matter either.

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