International World History: From night-soil buckets to World Toilet Day

History: From night-soil buckets to World Toilet Day




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A trip down the memory lane to a lesser known fact of life in Singapore, just over 25 years ago – the night-soil bucket system

Few months back, Singapore placed its first-ever resolution before the UN’s General Assembly of 193 members. Titled “Sanitation for all”, it was adopted by consensus and the UN designated November 19 as World Toilet Day. The Assembly also urged its members states to encourage behavioural changes and implement policies to increase access to sanitation among poor and end open-air defecation, which is extremely harmful to public health.

The two ministries – foreign affairs (MFA), and environment and water resources (MEWR) – which were responsible of preparing the resolution said in a joint statement, “Singapore hopes that all countries will use World Toilet Day as a platform to give the global challenge of sanitation and toilets the attention it deserves.” Vivian Balakrishnan who heads MEWR added, “Singapore was an early implementer of the concept of ‘Sanitation for All’. This made a major difference for our public health and hygiene.”

Night-soil bucket system

And indeed it has.

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It was in 1987 that the century-old night-soil (human waste) bucket system was phased out and replaced with the alternative on-site sanitation system.

As noted by Brenda Yeoh in the book, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, “Up to the 1880s, the removal and disposal of night-soil from the town of Singapore was entirely in the hands of Chinese syndicates who organised the collection of night-soil in buckets and their transfer to market gardens and plantations on the outskirts of the town.”

These gardeners and planters who used the night-soil as fertilizers used to pay for removing night-soil from every house once every three days. But as population grew “the value of night-soil had depreciated to such an extent that the positions of householder and collector were reversed; and now the former had to pay the latter for the removal of night-soil”, wrote Yeoh.

Thus, the night-soil bucket system was introduced in the 1890s by the municipal authorities and it soon became the most common method of sewage disposal in Singapore. While some of the night-soil continued to be used as fertilizer, the bulk was disposed in rains or was buried.

Two decades later, in 1910, Singapore’s first sewerage scheme was started. “The system then consisted of only a network of sewers and three pumping stations and a trickling filter plant to serve the central area of Singapore,” informs PUB – Singapore’s national water agency. Although by 1930, an extensive sewerage system was built to serve almost 100,000; over 150,000 people were still using the night-soil bucket system.

After independence, an intensive island-wide sewerage development programme was initiated in the 1960’s to meet the growing demands of the rapid housing and industrialisation programmes.


Then, in 1984, the phase-out programme for the night-soil bucket system began. The Toh Tuck night-soil disposal station was the first one to be closed. In the next three years, 15,369 night-soil buckets were phased out; and by 1987, only the Lavender Street, Bugis Street, Tampines Road and Lorong Lew Lian areas were being served by the system.

When on January 24, 1987, the last night-soil disposal station at Lorong Halus in Tampines was closed and 78 night-soil workers were retrenched or redeployed, it marked the end of a century-old system. All homes in Singapore were fitted either with a water-seal latrine or a two-chamber septic tank toilet called the R2.

UN says

Credit: UNICEF
Credit: UNICEF

Of the world’s seven billion people, six billion have mobile phones. However, only 4.5 billion have access to toilets or latrines – meaning that 2.5 billion people, mostly in rural areas, do not have proper sanitation. In addition, 1.1 billion people still defecate in the open. The countries where open defecation is most widely practised are the same countries with the highest numbers of under-five child deaths, high levels of under-nutrition and poverty, and large wealth disparities.

How it worked

The night-soil bucket system was manual and relied on close human contact with the waste. The collectors usually arrived at individual households with empty buckets, carried on his shoulders using a pole, to exchange for the filled ones. These buckets were then taken by the collectors to the collection centres. Since the collection was done mainly at night and the filled buckets were covered with soil to lessen the smell, hence the name “night-soil”.

On November 19, the MEWR, National Environment Agency (NEA) and PUB will commemorate World Toilet Day in Singapore with the Restroom Association of Singapore, the World Toilet Organisation and Lien Aid.

National Archives of Singapore has few pictures (1,2) for online viewing depicting the night-soil bucket system.

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