What’s an Infographic Worth?

by Gene Franks

Several years ago I wrote a piece for the old paper Pure Water Gazette called “Paying Off the National Debt with Water.”  Here’s how it started:

I read a clip from an engineering magazine about a Canadian inventor named Roy Jomha who has invented a toilet attachment called Econo-Flush. Mr. Jomha says that Econo-Flush can save 68% of the water that is sucked down toilets, and since 43% of the average home’s water goes down the toilet, he calculates that if every U.S. home had an Econo-Flush, the savings could take a big chunk out of the national debt in just a few years. This may be a good idea, but I got an even better one from the familiar medical slogan, “If we spend just one dollar on childhood immunization, we save $10 in later medical costs.” This could be the answer to the national debt, sickness care costs, and even world hunger. All we have to do is start spending $1 trillion or so per year on vaccinations, and with the $10 trillion per year we save in medical costs we can soon pay off the national debt and begin feeding the world.

The point is that our world runs on big, round unverifiable numbers that explain everything from the birth of the universe to the penis length of zebras in the year 2413.   There are so many big numbers, in fact,  that no one pays much attention.

When these big numbers involve the saving of money, I’ve never been able to think through the complicated equation that must explain who is saving the money and who is losing the money and how these opposites are reconciled.  If we prevent a case of chicken pox, for example, who saves money and who loses?  Clearly, the medical insurance provider may save the cost of a doctor visit and a prescription, but don’t the doctor and the pharmacy lose an equal amount by being deprived of income?  Determining the actual loss from a case of chicken pox would have to take into account the sick person’s employer, the nature of his or job, the service station that sells him gasoline, the coffee shop that loses its profit on the bagel that the sufferer did not purchase because of illness, the publisher of the newspaper he or she did not buy on the way to work, in increased use of gas and electricity resulting from spending a day at home (a loss to the chicken pox victim but a loss to the utility provider),  and so on forever and ever.

In the “infographic”  below prepared by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP),  I can’t imagine the formula used to determine the recovery of investment time for an open pit latrine in Kenya or the fivefold return of investment for sanitation improvement projects.  Not that I doubt their importance. I just doubt the importance of funding studies to tell us the dollar cost of worldwide lack of access to sanitation.

In general, I think the money would be better spent on shovels to dig latrines in Kenya. The best investment in world health is without doubt providing clean water and sanitation.  The world already has plenty of pie charts and bar graphs with big numbers.