Shit flow diagrams - does it need to be called "shit"? The use of the term shit (a swear word or not?) in sanitation dialogues


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  • cecile
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Re: RE: shit flow diagrams - does it need to be shit?

Hi everyone,

I currently have to translate in French an article about the "shit flow diagram" and my search on SuSanA's forum just led me to this interesting debate. Actually the reason why I was looking for more information about the "shit flow diagram" was to try to find a way not to use the word "shit" which I personnaly find offensive and offbeat in a context where we are designing policies and planning sanitation development.

But as Arno points out, will employing the word "shit" in that context precipitate action ? Giving it a second thought maybe no, maybe yes ...
Faecal waste (what about excreta ?) are pretty clear alternatives to me at least in English, but in French it is more tricky... What would be the point of view of the French speaking members ?

Aux lecteurs francophones :
Il y a un débat actuellement sur le forum sur l'utilisation de l'expression "shit flow diagram", de son caractère potentiellement offensif et de son efficacité ou pas à inciter des actions et des changements pour améliorer les conditions sanitaires.
Dans le cadre de la traduction d'un article sur le sujet en français, j'hésite à employer l'expression "diagramme de flux de la merde" ...
"diagramme de flux des fèces" ne me semble pas vraiment mieux (incomplet, urine, eaux de nettoyage, papier toilette ... sans parler de l'ambiguité du mot "fèces" à l'oral.)
"diagramme de flux des excréments" ...
J'ai un penchant (:-) pour "diagramme de flux des matières fécales". Qu'en pensez vous ? Quelle expression utilisez vous dans les projets francophones (Burkina Faso, Burundi ?)

Merci de vos contributions !

Cécile Laborderie
MAKATI Environnement
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  • Elisabeth
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Re: RE: shit flow diagrams - does it need to be shit?

Dear Peter and Arno,

I am really enjoying your exchange on whether the word "shit flow diagram" is helpful or not or in which contexts it is more helpful than in others.*

Peter you said:

We have used the term “shit” – which I do not classify as a swear word when not used as an expletive

I had to look up the word "expletive" - it means something like "shouting out".
I am not a native speaker but I think shit is definetely used in every day language as a swear word, not as a "normal" noun. Same with the word "Scheiße" in German.

Maybe you could arge that if the word is used enough and by enough people it will change in people's perception, just like perhaps the term "sex" has changed over time. I also remember in German the term "schwul" used to be something one wasn't allowed to say ("schwul" means gay in German) and now it has become a normal word. However, I would say for the term "shit" it is still a long way for it to not be considered a swear word anymore?


* I am wondering if I need to split off this thread into two threads, as we have a mixture of things here: shame, CLTS, using shit as a word, shit flow diagrams?
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  • arno
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Re: RE: shit flow diagrams - does it need to be shit?

Hi Peter.
Thanks for the comment regarding the "Shit Flow Diagrams". My reaction to this is that using the term shit in this context trivializes and glosses over the need for better and deeper understanding. It definitely creates an initial reaction but the question is will it precipitate action? If this is meant to engage policy makers to make priorities and spend public and private funds, I think the topic needs a much higher status. Is traffic safety handled in this manner using euphemisms about people's health and safety? Why should excreta be anything different? And terms mean a lot here since they interpret images and ideologies. The term biosolids has evolved as a euphemism for sludge from human excreta and blurs our understanding.

The Flow Diagrams will be used to compare various cities around the world and as seen from the first reports, highly dysfunctional sewage systems will be exposed to the world creating media attention. I would expect mayors of cities to react strongly to these diagrams since there will be impacts on tourism and land value. In a way this may turn out to be the CLTS campaign for urban centres. So be prepared for necessary follow up.

There was an attempt to do a similar exercise within the EU at "Name and Shame" seminars where European cities that were not complying with the Urban Wastewater Directive were hung out and taken to "court". As you can see from this news release from 2001 the list of cities is long and revealing eg Brussels didn't get its first ever sewage treatment plant until 2000. I don't think the name and shame route had much impact on the taxpaying public mainly because it didn't explain what the risks and benefits of sewage treatment are.

For policy makers in cities to understand why sewage treatment is an important priority and to set aside funds for this requires a well informed public. Will "Shit Flow Diagrams" serve this purpose and provide a solid basis for better understanding about the risks? Or will we end up with trivial euphemisms?

Here is an interesting piece on how eco-euphemisms confuse our understanding of environmental destruction.

Arno Rosemarin PhD
Stockholm Environment Institute
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  • phawkins
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Shit flow diagrams - does it need to be called "shit"? The use of the term shit (a swear word or not?) in sanitation dialogues

(Note by moderator (EvM): this post is in response to Arno's post from 4 November who said "I would even accuse WASH experts and senior officials for indirectly contributing to this behavior when they use swear words to describe human excreta." (See here: ))

Dear Colleagues

We have used the term “shit” – which I do not classify as a swear word when not used as an expletive, just a good old-fashioned and very specific Anglo-Saxon-based word in the English language – in the same spirit as the CLTS fraternity have been successfully using it for years, to avoid circumlocution and ambiguity, and possibly to shock. Otherwise, how do we get past the taboo? The SFD* is not aimed at the general public, but at decision-makers. If they can’t deal with the term “shit” it is likely that they have taken the common attitude that “it’s something we don’t talk about – and do even less about” and so need to be woken up. Note also that CLTS is NOT about shame, but rather about harnessing the natural disgust we humans (usefully) have for our shit. I would rather say it is about pride and a natural aspiration to abandon insanitary practices, which society has persuaded itself to accept partly by hiding the problem behind taboos and circumlocutions.

It was by pointing out to the Mozambican Planning Ministry using a national SFD showing that we have more than 10,000 tonnes per day of shit to deal with that government woke up to the sanitation issue, and has established a national sanitation program. So at least in this neck of the woods, using this approach was a turn-on, not a turn-off. I cannot vouch for the exact equivalence of “merde” in Portuguese with “shit” in English, but I think they are close enough.

If you feel that your audience is just too sensitive, the alternative “fecal waste flow diagram” can be used instead of “shitflow diagram”. But avoid terms like “wastewater” or “sludge” which do not describe what we are looking at here.

Best regards

* SFD = Shit Flow Diagram, see here:
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