Toilets, Tourism, And Mongolia
Toilets are 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. But, although many international travellers are open-minded and adventurous and actively seek authentic experiences that challenge expectations and cross the cultural divide, there is still very much a demand for standardised sanitation. This is one reason why tourist ger camps in Mongolia remain a popular accommodation choice for their access to flushing toilets and hot showers.
But, although Sustainable Development Goal 6 calls for adequate and equitable sanitation for all, Mongolia is a water-stressed region and although international visitors request a flush toilet, a percentage of Mongolia’s 3.2 million population (2020 Census) – 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.
Sanitation In Mongolia
According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene report (updated 2021), almost half of Mongolians in both urban and rural areas do not have access to a toilet or latrine which leads to treatment or safe disposal of excreta.
- 62.72% use latrine toilets
- 0.48% use septic tanks
- 34.22% are connected to a sewerage system
- 2.58% don’t have access to any form of toilet
- 58.8% of the above have access to safely managed sanitation
- 65.53 % use latrine toilets
- 4.42 connected to a sewerage system
- 30.05 don’t have access to any form of toilet
- 48.71% of the above have access to safely managed sanitation
There are numerous factors leading to this lack of access – the geography of the country, the extreme climate, the dispersed population, and a lack of financial resources leading to a lack of infrastructure. But tourism in Mongolia (both domestic and international) is a major user of water in areas where water is scarce or where renewal rates of the water table are limited such as in the Gobi Desert and tourism’s contribution to water consumption can be regionally significant. In addition, during peak season, the local sewage facilities can struggle to cope with the influx of human waste. The fact that local Mongolians do not have access to the flush facilities provided by a majority of ger camps is just one reason we try to avoid using such camps. We are not overly comfortable using what local people don’t have. We need to show an element of social sensitivity and a willingness to compromise.
The Reality When Driving
And then there’s the challenge of what to do when there are no public toilets but just hundreds of empty square miles of nothingness such as in Mongolia. And you need to pee. Or have a poo What do you do? Bury it? Pack it out? Just leave it?
A Personal Crusade!
“There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw anything away it must go somewhere. ” – Annie Leonard
Unfortunately, although Mongolia is frequently sold by tour companies as an untouched wilderness, toilet paper, sanitary items, and wet wipes are all now commonplace throughout Mongolia’s landscapes. And this discarded rubbish was the motivation behind our annual national park community clean-up event. But, what I struggle to understand is why a percentage of people that can afford to travel to other countries to experience them cannot be bothered to consider their impact or why a percentage of tourism companies that make a profit from offering experiences throughout Mongolia seem to have a ‘head in the sand’ moment when it comes to dealing with this issue. I should be honest here though. Mongolia’s herders own approximately 67 million head of livestock (2021) that create an incredible amount of dung. And, as quite a few international visitors to Mongolia will highlight, Mongolians themselves are not the best at the leave-no-trace philosophy. So what do we do?
Human waste and how we do or don’t dispose of it significantly impacts 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. 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. Here is an overview as to what we’re doing at EL:
- We’re training our 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 on 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 because although faeces are organic waste they do not rot down quickly in Mongolia due to the latitude and altitude.
- We also highlight that toilet paper should essentially be packed out and we 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 roots, the tussocks of the open steppe of eastern Mongolia are a nightmare. We bought a surplus supply of trowels to trial. 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 of our tour vehicles now has its own toilet tent for overnight stops which covers 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 before having a pee. But we’ve made 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.
What We Are Doing At EL?
We research and design our tour experiences so that they create local benefits for local people & communities including herding families we work in long-term local community partnership with – helping to supplement their income to help prevent urban migration, face the challenges of climate change and allowing them to maintain their fragile herding lifestyle. For the herding families we work with, most migrate throughout the year and do not necessarily have access to a toilet at some of their pasture locations or they have very casual latrine-style toilets that often need improvements. But by bringing visitors to their homes, we are increasing the pressure on their toilet facilities. Although nearly all tourism companies in Mongolia use homestay experiences provided by Mongolian herding families and although we are a small company and restrained by time and our limited financial resources, we are looking at ways we can fund composting toilets for the families we work with. Dry toilets are also an option but herding families live life on a thin edge and realistically do not have the time required for dealing with dry toilets. We also need to consider the ongoing maintenance of any toilets owned by the families or that we arrange to be built.
For 2023 we have our new sustainability team (well done Deegii and Tuya!) and we’re going to campaign to Mongolia’s ger camps and tourism hotels requesting they make simple changes that will hopefully help to have a positive impact such as looking to see if they have/can install dual-flush toilets or an ‘if it’s yellow, let it mellow’ philosophy. We’re also going to look at ways we can help to educate domestic tourists on the importance of burying waste. We’ll report here back at the end of 2023 as to what we have achieved.
For now, though, we ask that if you’re visiting Mongolia – especially any water-stressed areas such as the Gobi – that you’re conscious of your water usage, that if you are caught short, you bury it with thought, and that you don’t demand what local people don’t have. Nurture your sense of adventure!