Toilets. Always high on the list of travel stories and experiences – especially the ones involving a dropped passport out of the back pocket into a long-drop pit toilet (I sense a nodding of heads). In health and safety terms, long-drop toilets should have a risk assessment heading all of their own.
What if there are no toilets? Just hundreds of empty square miles of nothingness such as in Mongolia? And you need to pee? Or have a shit? What do you do? Bury it? Pack it out? Just leave it?
Well, for those of you that don’t give a shit, I am very annoyed. VERY ANNOYED (yes, big shouty capital letters ANNOYED). Toilet paper. Sanitary towels. Tampons. Those bloody wet wipes that we can’t seem to do without in the 21st Century. They are becoming more and more commonplace – discarded throughout our already battered and bruised natural and wilderness areas. (Shouty bit coming up.) I fail to understand why people that can afford to travel to other countries to experience them cannot be bothered to consider their impact. Hence I am VERY ANNOYED. Why can’t travellers just pee, shake and go? Whatever happened to the principle of leaving no trace?
I also fail to understand why a percentage of tourism companies that make a profit from offering experiences throughout a country seem to have a ‘head in the sand’ moment when it comes to dealing with this issue. Human waste and how we do or don’t dispose of it significantly impacts on wilderness experiences and has environmental impacts as well. All those making a living in tourism – whether that be an individual guide, a tour operator or a destination management organisation – should be focusing on these issues and challenges rather than ignoring them.
In relation to Mongolia, it is one of the largest countries in the world with limited infrastructure which leads to a lack of public toilets so yes, there will be challenges. I should also be honest here. Mongolia’s herders own many many millions of livestock (70 million) that create an incredible amount of dung. And, as quite a few international travellers to Mongolia will highlight, Mongolians themselves are not the best at the leave no trace philosophy. As international visitors and as a tour company need we worry? YES! What do we do?
Mongolia is a water-stressed region and we are conscious of our water usage as a company. This is one reason we are not comfortable using the standard tourist ger camps. Although many international travellers actively seek a change in culture, standardised sanitation usually remains a requirement. However, a conversation needs to be had here as although Sustainable Development Goal target 6.2 calls for adequate and equitable sanitation for all a percentage of Mongolia’s population – especially those living in rural areas and peri-urban areas (such as the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar) – do not have adequate access to piped water and a sewerage system. Yes, there are numerous factors leafing to this lack of access – the geography of the country, the extreme climate, the dispersed population, a lack of financial resources leading to a lack of infrastructure. However, a majority of Mongolians only have access to an unsafe pit latrine located outside of their homes. Whilst local people do not have access to the flush facilities provided by a majority of ger camps we are not overly comfortable using what local people don’t have. I think as visitors to a country we need to show an element of social sensitivity and a willingness to compromise.
Although there are no set rules, there are a few simple changes those in tourism can make that will have a positive impact on the environment as well as local communities.
What Are We Doing At EL?
I’m training my female Mongolian trip assistants to be big and brave and SHOUTY and to bring up the subject on the first pee stop – we’re working on them giving a simple basic toilet talk at the start of each trip. By educating our trip assistants in the ‘dos and don’ts’ we are also helping them to educate their own families. Yes, local Mongolians may well still ignore the leave no trace policy but if through our education we help to educate one person, it is a small step in the right direction.
Each of our vans has a small trowel so that guests can dig a ‘cathole’ of six to eight inches deep when needed as burying solid waste helps with decomposition. Toilet paper should essentially be packed out and we do encourage our guests to put their used toilet paper in a rubbish bag but they can bury the paper if they prefer not to bring it to the rubbish bag although we should consider that we’re leaving behind something that shouldn’t be left behind especially as toilet paper can take longer to decompose than human waste. Paper is never burnt as it rarely burns completely and for the main reason of starting a grassland or forest fire (and that’s a whole heap of other trouble).
(It took Turuu and I a long time to find suitable trowels … the Gobi is hard-packed earth, the north has dense forest cover that is perfect apart from the fact that it is forested and there are loads of sodding roots, the tussocks of the open steppe of eastern Mongolia are a nightmare. We bought a surplus supply of trowels. And then there is the question of what do you do when it’s minus 20, you have your trowel and the land is frozen …)
In addition, each van now has its own toilet tent for overnight stops which will cover a communal hole that all use – usually a loo with a truly remarkable view with plenty of air conditioning. We are also working on the information we provide to our female guests – highlighting that used tampons and sanitary pads should be removed and not buried. We have also highlighted considering using a menstrual cup (essentially a non-absorbent, pliable cup that collects menstrual fluid).
However, we know we’re not perfect – not by any stretch of the imagination. Sometimes we forget to give the toilet talk or sometimes our guests just don’t listen or feel uncomfortable with the idea, or the trowels go missing. We don’t always remind guests of the rule to walk 70 adult steps from a water source. But it is a start. We are considering the subject and thinking about what we can do to improve our footprint. All I ask is that as a traveller, you’ll join us in making an effort to leave no trace. It comes down to respect – respect our natural environment but ultimately for ourselves as well.