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The Smell of Poverty

Ignacio Hernandez's picture

I already blogged about the latest UNDP Human Development Report on water and poverty, but I can't help mentioning it again after reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s comment on the report.


For our Spanish-speaking audience, “El olor de la pobreza” (the smell of poverty) is an excellent read. His article, peppered with literary quotes, is as poignant and tough as Vargas Llosa can get.


My quick translation will not do it justice, but here are some pearls:


From this reading, the first conclusion I reach is that the emblematic object of civilization and progress is not the book, the telephone, Internet or the atomic bomb, but the toilet. Where human beings empty their bladder and intestines is the decisive factor to know if they still find themselves in the cruel underdevelopment or if they have started to make progress. The repercussions that this simple and very important fact has on people’s life are vertiginous…

In Dharavi, a populous part of Mumbai, there is only one toilet per 1,440 people, and in the rainy season the water flooding the streets turns them into rivers of excrements. The abundance of the liquid element is, in this case as in many third world cities, a tragedy, because, given the condition in which people live, water, instead of being life is often times the instrument of sickness and death…

In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote that “sewers are the conscience of the city” and … he tried to do a strange interpretation of history through human excrement. This terrific report does something similar, without the poetry and eloquence of the great French romantic, but with a much better scientific knowledge.

“We are born among feces and urine”, wrote Saint Agustin. A shiver should shake us when we think that a third of our contemporaries never leave the filth in which they came to this valley of tears.


Sometimes it takes a great writer to make us feel (and smell) what lies behind technical reports.




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