A Conversation with Dr. Peter Morgan
We should all aim, in some way or other, to improve the world in which we are privileged to live, so that in the field in which we have chosen to work, we will leave the world in a better state than when we arrived.
~ Dr. Peter Morgan
Every November 19th, SOIL celebrates one of its favorite holidays, World Toilet Day, a day that recognizes the small but mighty toilet – a device often overlooked or shrouded in taboo – fundamental to the health of people and planet Earth. This year we have the great opportunity to share some thoughts about sanitation from SOIL’s great friend and inspiration, Dr. Peter Morgan, an expert in the field and the developer of the Arborloo - an eco toilet that becomes a tree.
Peter has been involved in research and development within the rural water supply, hygiene and sanitation sector (WASH) for 50 years. In 2013 he won the Stockholm Water prize for his life-long work to protect the health and lives of millions of people through improved water and sanitation technologies.
Peter has been an inspiration not only to SOIL but to water and sanitation engineers around the world through his development of simple innovative technologies and his lifelong dedication to addressing human rights.
Can you please tell us a little about yourself? How did you get involved in the sanitation sector?
Peter: By profession I am a zoologist, educated in the UK. My first job after graduating was in Malawi studying the fish and fisheries of Lake Chilwa near Zomba. That was in 1968. I joined a group of people at the University of Malawi who were studying the lake. During that study I also wrote papers on the transmission of Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) and sent them to the Central African Journal of Medicine in Salisbury, Rhodesia. After leaving Malawi I was offered a job in Rhodesia at the Blair Research Laboratory, based on the papers I had written. I joined the lab in 1972. For the first year I studied the transmission of bilharzia, but in 1973 Dr Dyson Blair (who had been Secretary of Health during the days of the federation) persuaded me to look at sanitation, water supplies and hygiene as a means of controlling the transmission of Bilharzia. I had immense respect for Dyson Blair (after telling him I had no experience in this field). He just suggested I get on with it and to do something practical. So I did. I worked with the MoH for 20 years, developing toilet systems, water pumps, and other things related to the water supply and sanitation sector. Later the Swedes persuaded me to look at Ecological sanitation. And also water and sanitation for schools.
What motivates you to stay involved?
Peter: I found I was reasonably good at tinkering around with technical things. And also was not bound to a formal education in the WASH sector. That gives one the freedom to think laterally and out of the box, as they say. Whilst my interest in the natural world and biology has never faded, I just carried on developing technical things, some of which had a biological base to their development.
World Toilet Day is coming up and we would like to share with our broader audience why sanitation is so important. Is there anything in particular that really highlights the importance of sanitation that you could share?
Peter: Well, our species comes in many forms from the richest to the poorest but we all have one thing in common – we all need a toilet of some type. So, there must be an array of technical options available to suit different people and different environments. No one technical option suits all.
Our excreta, if poorly managed, can pollute the environment and carry organisms that transmit disease – that is a well known fact. Our garbage also pollutes the environment if poorly managed.
What are your thoughts on measuring the public health impacts of sanitation? Is the sanitation sector forever attached to only WASH impacts?
Peter: A good question. We all know that poor sanitation, a lack of personal hygiene, a lack of hand washing facilities and control over food preparation can lead to outbreaks of several enteric diseases, like Cholera and Typhoid etc. But where sanitation is poor, the waste matter can also pollute the groundwater leading to outbreaks of disease. In an urban setting, if a water supply once worked and provided people with flush type toilets and then the water supply failed - the sewers get blocked and then leak and may burst - polluting the groundwater.
What are your thoughts about Container Based Sanitation?
Peter: This is something SOIL is promoting and it is a great concept. Most of my work has been involved with the rural sector, but the greatest sanitation challenge lies in the towns and cities. In the rural areas there is space - a great asset. This luxury does not exist in crowded cities and towns. As the cities get larger with more people migrating to them from the rural areas to find work, so does the demand increase for appropriate methods for the supply of water and sanitation and hygiene to be improved accordingly - a GREAT challenge.
I am 80 years old now, so I must leave these challenges for the next generation to solve. And you are the next generation. You can tell me. I am happy to listen.
To get an even closer look into the incredible mind of Peter Morgan, check out this conversation between him and SOIL’s Executive Director, Dr Sasha Kramer, on a sunny afternoon in Johannesburg back in 2012.
We are so very grateful for mentors and leaders like Peter who have paved the way for organizations like SOIL to become established and thrive, and whose legacy inspires us to continue to drive innovation around sanitation and find the solutions that make real impact in vulnerable communities around the globe.