Washing dishes in the developing world
December 8, 2010 11:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in dishwashing practices in the developing world. If you were one of roughly the half of the people in the world without running water in your home, how might you wash your dishes? What kind of set up would you have? Are sinks common even if you collect water from a public well or water truck? Or would you have a washbasin/plastic tub? On a countertop, table, or floor? Cloth or tarp outside? Would you use non-potable water to do the washing up? Save the graywater for next time or for other cleaning tasks?

Answers will probably be broad and varied, and that's fine. References, video and photos would all be great. I can imagine all sorts of practices, but I need some verification.
posted by hydrophonic to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't the developing world, but my family didn't have running water at our cottage when I was a kid. We carried buckets of water back from the handpump up the road, then use a dipper to put some of that water in a kettle to heat it up and combine that with cool water in a dishpan with soap. We had a separate basin (basically just a big bowl) filled with clean water that we'd rinse the washed dishes in. The dishwater got chucked outside, the rinsewater, if clean, was kept for the next dishes.
posted by ldthomps at 11:18 AM on December 8, 2010

This is an interesting question and I have no idea. Access to clean water is a huge problem in the developing world, and it's not uncommon (from what I understand) to see people washing their clothing (or, ugh, sometimes even drinking from) in streams just a few feet away from where people are, uh, openly defecating. I have to assume in situations like that (i.e. bad access to clean water, bad education on water safety) dishes aren't being cleaned very well.

For a Western, developed world take on low access to water situations, I can share my experience from camping with a large group for over a week. We had no plumbing, but did have one spigot of clean, (and freezing cold) running water (from a pipe run down from a mountain spring). We had two large washtubs filled with water, one soapy, one for rinse water. After each meal, all the dishes got thrown into the soapy water tub and swished around until the food was off of them. And then they got thrown into the rinse water tub. And then they were...clean. The rinse water was gray, sudsy, and had flecks of grass and who knows what else floating in it. Definitely not sanitized to perfection, but no one got sick (and we even dealt with dairy, raw meat, and all kinds of potentially gross stuff like that).

I also lived for a while (in an apartment with ample access to hot water and cleaning materials) with a super eco-obsessed person who would use dishes, brush them off with her (infrequently washed) hand, and stick them back in the (communal) cabinet. So even in America dish washing practices/standards can vary a lot.
posted by phunniemee at 11:27 AM on December 8, 2010

during long power outages (at least several days) caused by hurricanes I've washed and rinsed dishes with rainwater mixed with bleach and threw the grey water outside. I would never use non-potable to wash eating utensils (flatware, plates/bowls, glasses) but cookware, sure, because it would get heated to killing temps during the next cook cycle.

that's all because I have the luxury of bleach, propane stove and butane lighters, and a controlled-air environment (ie: roof and walls).
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:32 AM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: In Pakistan, many variations in practice exist. The ones I'm familiar with are urban.

There may be a large drum (metal or plastic) with a small tap at the bottom, from which water would be doled out in buckets (metal or plastic), or tubs (metal or plastic). The tap at the bottom would probably have a rag of cloth tied to it, because the tap will invariably end up leaking sooner or later. The rag will be only somewhat effective, but at least you're only losing water at a really slow drip.

If you're not well-off enough to be able to afford a drum, you probably take a bucket to a communal tap (used to be hand pumps, but taps are getting to be more and more common). Depending on how far the communal tap is, you might well reuse water. Depending on how well-informed you were, you may or may not know which tasks it is safe to re-use water for.

You would probably squat on the ground near a drain to do the actual washing. Or somewhere from where the water would not end up messing up your whole floor (edge of a yard, roadside, etc.).

Sinks are not common where there is no running water. What you may have is a concrete portion of the floor. Imagine a small shower stall, except there are no walls, it's just the square part with the drain. And it's concrete, not tile. There's a round drain hole, which may or may not have a metal cover with holes.

There would be no cloth or tarp. The dishes would sit on the ledge of the concrete washing area. As they are washed, they would be moved to the opposite ledge.

Soap may or may not be used, depending on availability as well as awareness.

Now that's for the people who don't usually have running water in their homes.

Then there are the ones who have the infrastructure for running water (taps, shower heads, flush toilets, etc.), but water scarcity means that they frequently don't actually have running water. Do you want to hear about them too, or are they out of the scope of your question?
posted by bardophile at 11:36 AM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: Many years ago, in rural India, there was no running water at my grandmother's place. Since there was no running water supplied, it was simulated by having a storage tank (somewhat elevated, but not overhead) which was filled by getting water in buckets from a well. This storage tank was meant specifically for washing dishes, washing your hands, brushing teeth etc.

The rest is similar to doing dishes where you do have running water, except that everyone was very careful about not wasting water. The dishes were first all scrubbed with soapy water (soap powder + some water in a separate pan), and then all rinsed under running water in quick succession. The person doing this would be squatting on the ground (a low stool was sometimes used to let the person sit with some comfort). Like in bardophile's account, there was a concrete area on the ground. In our case, it was connected to above-ground drainage with an open channel.
posted by vidur at 11:51 AM on December 8, 2010

"connected to above-ground drainage with an open channel."

Read as "connected to drainage with an above-ground open channel."
posted by vidur at 11:52 AM on December 8, 2010

Many years ago, in rural India, there was no running water at my grandmother's place. Since there was no running water supplied, it was simulated by having a storage tank (somewhat elevated, but not overhead) which was filled by getting water in buckets from a well.

Same deal exists currently in Delhi, except storage tank is on top of apartment building and gets a daily water shipment from a truck.
posted by goethean at 12:00 PM on December 8, 2010

What I've done in places without running water, and where the water is definitely contaminated with sewerage, or disease is present. Three cheap plastic tubs. Boiled water in all of them. Wash in water/detergent in the first. Rinse in water in the second. Rinse again with a mix of water/disinfectant in the third. Then air dry in a dust free and preferably sunny spot. Empty the first two tubs, use the water from the third tub to rinse out the first two, then discard.

I've seen a variant taught as part of village health projects in Asia and southern Africa. Two tubs, boiled water if possible for both. If not possible for both, then lots of detergent in the first and either boiled water or water+disinfectant for the rinse. Again, dry in a sunny spot without airborne dust. Use water on garden.

There's been some fairly large studies into the impact of education about hand and dish washing methods as part of village health projects in developing countries. You can find some of them by googling "village health education dishwashing" and then drilling down a bit.
posted by Ahab at 12:04 PM on December 8, 2010

when I was growing up in Manila, we had running water, but power tended to be unstable so we had a few days and nights where the pumps weren't running; and thus always had contingencies setup for water interruption. Normally, for things like personal hygeine, we had a big barrel of water in our shower stalls and a dipper (basically liter sized ladle) that we could use for bathing ourselves. Wet body part, apply soap, use dipper to rinse. Repeat until clean.

For dishwashing, we had a washbasin next to our sink that was usually kept full of water. Routine was: scrape all scraps into trash barrel. Dip sponge into rinse basin, wipe down dish over sink. Apply soap. Scrub with second soap sponge. Squeeze out soap sponge into sink. Set dish aside. When stack of dishes were all done, put in sink and rinse out with remaining water in wash basin.
posted by bl1nk at 12:08 PM on December 8, 2010

Response by poster: Excellent answers so far! bardophile, when I was in Greece the shower stall without walls was common, but is what you're describing used for bathing too? Any search terms you would recommend so I can look for photos, etc.?

Water conversation issues are the impetus for my question, so desciptions about what people with running water do in times of scarcity do are most welcome.
posted by hydrophonic at 12:22 PM on December 8, 2010

A book I just read on medical practices in early US history stated that many pioneers didn't wash dishes, but ate everything else scraped them clean. It led me to wonder whether it's the basis for the US cultural oddity of "clean your plate" whereas most other cultures I've come into contact with insist piling on food until you are unable to clean your plate (by eating). I've no idea whether not washing dishes to save water applies to the developing world, but thought the tidbit was an interesting (if slightly disgusting) way to deal with lack of running water for dishes.
posted by forforf at 12:26 PM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: In Vietnam, it's quite common to see people washing things (dishes, food, etc.) in large plastic tubs, squatting on the ground outdoors. Some examples from Flickr: urban 1, urban 2, presumably with water from a tap or something. Here is a picture of a woman doing washing in a river or stream. (Photo says it's in the Mekong, so that river water contains plenty of trash, human excrement, and pesticides.)

I don't have a lot of direct observations from rural areas. The squatting-on-the-ground-washing-in-a-basin definitely happens. Water sources include rivers and streams, rainwater collected in barrels (most, if not all, rural homes that I saw in the Mekong seemed to have rain barrels, but again, very limited observations here), and taps/hand pumps in a community. Not sure which is most common in general or for dishes specifically.
posted by mandanza at 12:28 PM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: In Bolivia, probably the most common household set-up for the working classes is to use small round multipurpose plastic wash basins. I would say most people wash dishes on a table if there is one handy (in contrast to washing laundry, which is often done with a basin on the floor, either outdoors or indoors). People used either soap powder or bar soap.

The next step up would be to have a concrete utility sink outdoors. These are not uncommon even in households without permanent running water. However, even if you had a utility sink, you still might use plastic basins, because water is scarce (which is the case even for households with running water) and a wash basin doesn't need as much water. I don't recall ever seeing an indoor sink in a house that did not have running water.

I don't recall seeing anyone re-use dishwashing greywater for anything other than watering plants. People would use non-potable water without sterilization (or at least, water that would likely not pass inspection in a first-world country, although it was also not uncommon for people to drink this same water without further treatment, and it wasn't insta-death).

Water is stored in large jugs or barrels, and the people at the top of the working class hierarchy may have an in-ground storage cistern. Middle-class households--even those with running water--may also have storage cisterns due to the unpredictability of the water supply.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 12:40 PM on December 8, 2010

You don't need water to clean dishes to an acceptable level. You just don't prepare sticky foods and place them directly on plates. Use bread as a substrate or use bread to clean the plate. In Ethiopia, food is pretty much eaten directly on injera and you use more injera as eating utensils. The you just need to clean your hands - or lick them.
posted by JJ86 at 12:58 PM on December 8, 2010

You don't need to clean plates if the plate's trencherbread, though you still need to deal with the cookware.

More up to date, Protect and Survive told people to wash their dishes with sand in the event of a nuclear apocalypse (towards the end of this video; warning that these videos are found to be seriously scary by a lot of people).
posted by Coobeastie at 1:06 PM on December 8, 2010

Some parts of the world use (or at least did use historically) solid leaves as plates, such as banana leaves; I assume that these are just thrown away after use. Similarly, the acceptability of eating different kinds of foods with your hands varies from place-to-place. So, I suspect that one answer to your question is that in some places there is considerably less washing to be done.
posted by Jabberwocky at 1:07 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid, at our summer house we also had the two small plastic tubs on the counter system, with water from the kettle added to the first one to make the water hotter. We also had two gigantic buckets of water next to the tiny electric stove that had to be regularly topped off from the faucet outside. This was mostly the kids job, so I remember that quite well. Our water was pumped from deep in the ground and it was some of the best tasting water I've ever had. And we never showered, just swam in the lake when we could and washed our feet in a basin before bed.
posted by Shusha at 1:26 PM on December 8, 2010

In many places, people do not really have dishes. I spent time in the jungle in western Honduras. Food was often served on a banana leaf, and you ate with your hands. They had wooden bowls, but I dont think they were cleaned very often, it at all.
posted by Flood at 2:05 PM on December 8, 2010

I think forforf is onto something above with the comment about scraping plates. You may be starting with an assumption that cleaning dishes necessarily implies submerging them in water.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:11 PM on December 8, 2010

Some parts of the world use (or at least did use historically) solid leaves as plates, such as banana leaves; I assume that these are just thrown away after use. Similarly, the acceptability of eating different kinds of foods with your hands varies from place-to-place.
in the Philippines we have whole classes of restaurants known as kamayan which translates, more or less, to "hand-eating". They're mostly buffets where you get a plate with a banana leaf and can load up food from steam tables; then sit at a table with family/friends and eat with your hands. It's generally sold as a 'traditional' method for dining, but less for water conservation and more as "this is the way we ate before the white man came with his fancy forks and knives and stuff"
posted by bl1nk at 2:14 PM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: When I lived in rural Uganda, we paid someone to deliver several plastic jerrycans of water from the local borehole each week. Dishwashing took place in about an inch of that water poured into a wide, shallow plastic tub. Soapy dishes were shaken until most of the soap/water flew off, then put into a second plastic tub with about an inch of water to be rinsed. The soapy water was thrown out (outside); the rinse water was carefully poured back into a jerrycan to use for bathing or washing dishes the next time.

All of this took place either on our concrete floor in our living room next to the low shelf where we kept our dishes or, if it was a nice day, on our concrete stoop outside. No sinks inside the house, but two small closets (one off the living room and one of the bedroom) that both had drains in the (concrete) floors. We used the closet off the living room as our "kitchen," though it was too small to squat and do dishes in, and the one off the bedroom as our showering stall.
posted by rebekah at 2:20 PM on December 8, 2010

Any search terms you would recommend so I can look for photos, etc.?

Lots of images with this google image search.
posted by vidur at 2:32 PM on December 8, 2010

And a YouTube video too!
posted by vidur at 2:34 PM on December 8, 2010

I spent a month last year on a little island where there is no running water. Families there used large plastic bowls for washing up in. They poured water into the bowl from one of the various other collector containers they had sitting outside to collect rainwater in, added soap, and washed. Then they poured fresh water into the bowl and rinsed everything in it. The second bowl of water was saved for reuse, since it was pretty clean, though a little soapy. Some of the more well-to-do families had a bench specially for washing up on, and some had a little barrel above the bench with a tap on it. But they still had to fill the barrel with rainwater from the other containers every day or so.

They couldn't use the wells because on that island, well water is slightly salty.

I have a photo of the set-up of one of the families here: it looks pretty much like a western kitchen sink, but it's outdoors, and there's no plumbing.
posted by lollusc at 2:38 PM on December 8, 2010

Oh, I should add that when water is scarce, they use large leaves as plates instead. A pile of six or so leaves is used, and when you want to go back for seconds, or desserts, the top, dirty leaf is thrown away and there's a clean one underneath.

Also, the water for washing up is cold, as the generator only runs a few hours a day and using fuel to heat water for washing would be wasteful, and only a few inches of water is used. Plates are scraped clean before washing them.
posted by lollusc at 2:42 PM on December 8, 2010

I remember something very similar to what vidur said from when I visited my grandparents as a small child, but I wouldn't call what they had a storage tank, it was just a large covered clay pot that was filled with water brought back from the well (which was a couple minutes walk away). And I bet for washing dishes/clothes/etc..., they made separate trips to the well for water.
posted by echo0720 at 3:54 PM on December 8, 2010

For what it's worth, there are people in the developed world who do not have running water either.

There are a reasonably large number of people here in the second largest city in Alaska who live in "dry cabins" which don't have running water at all (typically they get water delivered or go fetch it in big containers in the back of pickups), and also a number of people (some in very nice houses) who get their water delivered via water wagon (instead of being on city water or well water), although it does run through taps in the house from a big storage tank.

I'll ask around to see how they do dishes.
posted by leahwrenn at 5:06 PM on December 8, 2010

solid leaves as plates, such as banana leaves;

In which case the leaves are often rinsed before use. I've seen this done by passing all the leaves through a single tub of water.
posted by BinGregory at 6:40 PM on December 8, 2010

In my region of Canada, there are quite a few mountains hut that see a lot of use, but generally don't have running water. The system is usually made up of plain white plastic buckets to fetch water from a nearby stream, a normal stainless kitchen sink (sometimes a double sink) connected to a short section of drainpipe with another plastic bucket underneath, from which the grey water is manually emptied into a simple sand and gravel filter outside. There are usually small basins available so that you don't have to fill the whole sink.

Having camped with a bunch of different people, I can say that people's dishwashing techniques while backpacking range from two pot (wash and rinse) systems, through quick wipes with a damp soapy cloth, a short scrub with sand or gravel in a nearby body of water, all the way to a scrape down with a rubber spatula or just a good lick of one's utensils.
posted by ssg at 9:17 PM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: In most of the third-world countries in Africa, its a jerrycan and 2 big plastic tubs (think wider than a bucket) as described by rebekah above. There are no sinks, its typically done on the stoop of the house or just out on the ground somewhere. Generally speaking:

1) Fill jerrycan from local pothole / pond / stream / river / borehole (if you're lucky) / urban water source (water delivery truck, actual spicket, etc.; if you're very lucky).

2) Transport jerrycan from water source to home. Typically you see women or children carrying these, many times on their heads. When you see a man carrying one, its on the back of his bike, and its filled with local brew, not water.

3) Soapy water in one tub, rinse water in the other. Washing is done by hand, there's not even the idea or notion of things like rags or sponges, let alone availability in the local market of such things. Dishes have the soap either flung or wiped by a dry set of hands from them before being rinsed so as to keep the rinse water clean for the next washing.

4) After a brief rinse, dishes are set up in a pile, usually on a piece of cloth of some sort, to dry. Soapy water gets tossed, the soapy tub might sometimes get a little of the rinse water, rest of rinse water is saved for next washing.

I've seen this practice in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, DRC, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mali, Ghana, Senegal...
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:31 AM on December 9, 2010

Portland, Maine had a water and sewer main break, and the limited water pressure available was contaminated. I was lucky enough to have water for flushing the toilet. All public facilities were closed due to lack of sanitation. I went to the store and saw a woman buying a shopping cart full of bottled water. It seemed pretty selfish. While in the store, they announced that a truck had arrived, and they were giving away bottled water. I'm sure it was limited, but don't remember. The water and sewer were repaired in about a day, and water was heavily chlorinated for a week or so, because of the contamination. There were no reports of illness.

We're lucky to live in a place with abundant, clean, delicious water. I still store some water, just in case.
posted by theora55 at 5:09 AM on December 10, 2010

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