Toilet Tuesday: the V.I.P.

Toilet Tuesday Sep 08, 2020

Let's continue this series of toilet reviews with a well-known suspect...


What?

The V.I.P. toilet stands for "Ventilated Improved Pit toilet". Did you expect something else? Wait, there's more disappointment to come.

A VIP is an evolution of the basic pit toilet, designed to solve its two main woes: flies and smells. You add a ventilation pipe to the pit, which sucks foul air to the top. If you keep the toilet cubicle itself dark, then flies are attracted by the bright light a the top of the pipe; add a fine mesh at the top of the pipe and the flies will die there. Brilliant, right? Well, sometimes.

Illustration by Peter Machintosh for WaterAid

Tell me more

The VIP was originally the Blair toilet, invented in the Zimbabwean Blair Research Laboratory by Dr Peter Morgan (yep, same as the Arborloo), in the 1970s. The World Bank was looking for suitable low-cost rural toilets in the early 1980s, and the Blair VIP toilet quickly became a poster child for its Technology Advisory Group. In Zimbabwe, it became part of national standards.

Soon, NGOs adopted it too as one of the essential upgrades for simple pit toilets; in Southern Africa, a few toilet manufacturers created their variants (Archloo, Phungalutho...). Unicef widely deployed VIPs.

They can look good too. Photo by PRM from Flickr

Review

In theory, VIPs are fantastic. In practice... not always. Evaluations have been mixed and note that "when properly engineered and maintained, they work as intended". This points at both the beauty and the flaw of the VIP: it is the engineer's reaction when using a simple toilet and noticing swarming flies and poo smells. It is an elegant and cheap design.

But real life has a nagging tendency to outwit the best blueprints: the fly mesh becomes dirty without becoming obvious to the owner, as it's often 2 metres above ground. Ad for the system to work, the inside has to be dark. Darker than inside the ventilation pipe, with its dirty mesh on top. Do you want to use a dark toilet? I didn't think so.

As a result, the VIPs don't always work as expected, and create distrust - why bother doing more than a simple pit toilet? Eventually they become associated with unimproved pit toilets. Even Zimbabwe has now banned new VIP toilets. Shame, they're not a bad idea.

Any redeeming features?

The Blair Research Laboratory also developed the popular Bush Pump , which means that in Zimbabwe, it wasn't uncommon to pump a Bush and shit in a Blair during the same day, as the joke went. It made the early 2000s a bit more tolerable.

While you're here, you can read this moving ode to the Bush pump (definitely not on Sci-Hub). I would love to read such beautiful praise written about a Gulper one day!

Verdict?

The quintessential 1980s rural toilet: perfect for nostalgic engineers.


Credits

Cover image credits: PRM on Flickr
More information: SSWM toolbox
Suggestions welcome! Which tech should I review?

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