The World Health Organization has said that approximately 2.6 billion people (which is a third of the World’s population) don’t have access to proper sanitation such as toilets or latrines. Although the Millennium Development Goals did halve the number of people without access to clean water five years ahead of schedule, sanitation improvement campaigns won’t meet their targets by the completion date in 2015.
Fortunately, most people in Sai Gon have a toilet or have access to a toilet in their homes, but there is a fundamental lack of publicly available bathrooms on Sai Gon streets and as such public urination is very common. If you have a job that keeps you on the streets, ie, motorcycle taxi driver, street vendor, or delivery person, you don’t have access to private bathrooms. As a result you see and smell evidence of public urination everywhere. You mostly see men and children doing it and the occasional woman.
Other than the smell and the obvious public health ramifications, I don’t really have a problem with people relieving themselves outdoors if they don’t have a better option. But they should have a better option; there should be more clean and safe, publicly accessible toilets for the sake of public health and human dignity; it is a human right. I decided to chart a week of encounters with ‘al fresco urination,’ to demonstrate how common place it is in Sai Gon.
Sunday – 15:00. Riding home from the shops and at while shopped at some traffic lights I see a street vendor grandmother holding her toddler granddaughter against a tree next to her cart. Grandmother is holding the ankles in her hands and her forearms support the little girl’s underarms. (My thoughts – ingenious positioning of a urinating child; probably developed over decades of child-minding.)
Monday – 09:20. Walked past an older man relieving himself on the corner of Nguyen Thi Minh Khi and Pham Ngoc Thach, two of the busiest main streets in District One – the very centre of Sai Gon. (My thoughts – full marks for being utterly unashamed.)
Tuesday – 22:00. Glimpsed a woman in a dark corner as I rode my motorbike down a side street on my way home from dinner. Seeing a woman doing this is rare and somehow more shocking. (My thoughts – I appreciate the gender equality of this one.)
Wednesday – 09:15. Going past a construction site and caught three men relieving themselves against the barricade. Construction sites are very popular places for a pit stop; to the point that I wonder if the construction workers have to include the amount of urine in cement and aggregate in their calculations when mixing the concrete. (My thoughts – this is one way to leave a mark on the foundations of a public work.)
Thursday – 20:00. Out to dinner with friends, sitting in a tastefully decorated courtyard of a restaurant. Four year old girl at the table next to us starts pulling on her mother’s arm. The mother calmly stands and takes the child over to a little area to the side of the courtyard with some potted plants and flowers and flips her dress up. (My thoughts – I appreciate that you don’t want your barely toilet-trained four year old to interrupt your meal, but I really don’t want anything trickling under my table.)
Friday – 23:30. Trying to call my friend while sitting on my motorbike on Bui Vien Street (the sleaziest, nastiest, tourist street in Sai Gon, known for drinking, drugs, prostitution and gangs – I go there sometimes to feel better about my life in general); a mother trying to sell fans and sunglasses to tourists walks by with her eight year old daughter. The mother doesn’t even pause when she sees her daughter drop into a squat in the gutter outside a bar heaving with people. (My thoughts – deeply distressed that a child had to expose herself on one of the busiest streets in Sai Gon. Street sellers don’t have many options but she could at least been lead back from the road.)
Saturday – 19:00. Walking home and see a family of four sitting on a stationary motorbike. The father is sitting at the front with his toddler son standing on his thigh, the young daughter is sitting on behind him and the mother is at the back. The father is holding the child steady, while the mother holds her son’s penis towards the gutter so he doesn’t wet everyone. (My thoughts – I was kinda hoping the motorbike would be in motion at the time, ‘cause I’m pretty sure people have tried that before and it would be ludicrous to witness.)
p.s. I should also note that culturally, children have the same urination privileges as the average Cocker Spaniel – just about anywhere, at any time. A friend told me that they once saw a five year old relieve himself on the carpet at one of the boarding gates at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Sai Gon and I’ve lived here just long enough to believe it.