National Geographic’s Poo Map

How to Map a Public Poo Problem?

A map on “the percentage of people defecating in the open air” is a concept that is both profound and perverse. The map (below) appeared in the National Geographic August 2017 issue, with the title, “A Place to Go.” The article focuses on India, but includes pictures of Haiti and Vietnam. To be perfectly plain, people pooping in the open go in fields, forests, bushes, rivers, or beaches—often due to cultural habits and/or lack of toilet access. This can risk spreading disease, like cholera, and stunting the growth of children due to sickness and malnutrition.


NGkey&top countries


Problems with the Map?

As a former National Geographic map editor, I applaud the designer’s use of brown colors as appropriate for the topic; however, to better visualize the nature of the problem, more creative symbols (below) could replace the boring boxes in the key.




I have a few other more serious issues with the map too:

Problem with Poo Percentages. With the exception of India, the use of percentages in the map legend results in smaller countries being highlighted rather than more populous countries, which possess prodigious piles of poo.  For example, the above table, “Countries with highest rates,” includes Eritrea (population 5.8 million), Sao Tome and Principe (pop. 197,000), and Solomon Islands (pop. 635,000).

Poo Gap in Map Key. Comparing “More than 40” to “25 to 39.9,” there is a gap that excludes 40. The countries of Mozambique and Madagascar (both at 40%) would be in the highest category if the key was changed to “40 or more.” However, on the National Geographic map, both countries were put in the second category (25 to 39.9) by mistake.

Angola’s Poo Color. As a map professional (some would say map geek), I noticed on the map that Angola’s exclave of Cabinda was not the same color as the rest of Angola. This is kind of a big deal — like not showing Alaska in the same color as the rest of the United States. Cabinda is a major oil-producer for Angola, with a population of some 700,000, about the same as Alaska.


War and Poo. The “No data” category on the National Geographic map includes Libya, a country that descended into civil war starting in 2011, resulting in the displacement of people and the destruction of sanitation facilities. This scenario also exists in Syria and Iraq where millions have lost their homes and are on the move as refugees. Open defecation happens in times of war, although authoritarian governments choose to hide it. Cholera outbreaks and epidemics in both Syria and Iraq, especially in 2015, provide evidence of the poo problem. Therefore, Syria and Iraq should be (at the very least) put in the “No data” category, due to government inability to provide basic sanitation services to millions of people.

I would add that North Korea should be added to the “No data (meaning no reliable data)” category due to recent cholera epidemics and the open use of human poo in North Korean society.


How to Make the Map Better?

A passage from the National Geographic article prescribes a poo map solution:

Tiwari moves on: How many people live here? About 1,500, a young man shouts. Tiwari explains that each person daily produces more than half a pound of feces, which means the village annually produces around 300,000 pounds. The crowd murmurs, and Tiwari leads them in a round of mocking applause.

This excerpt links population number to poo production. Changing the map from population percentages to millions of people would highlight more populous countries, as shown in the table (below) from a 2012 WHO/UNICEF report.


It should be noted that China, which shows as “Less than 1” on the National Geographic map, has a poo problem, with 14 million practicing open defecation. This problem was shockingly evident at the 2016 opening of Shanghai Disneyland. A populous country with a small percentage can lay down leviathan loads of poo, with 14 million Chinese producing an estimated 2.8 billion pounds per year.

DisneyLand Poo

While I admire National Geographic for taking on a topic with unpleasant pictures, the map could have been more effective — mostly by using absolute numbers instead of percentages. Obviously, I had a bit of fun with the topic, but analysis of the map design and data was serious doodie.


Author: David Miller

Learned about the wonders of geography while working at National Geographic for some 25 years. Started teaching one class a semester at NOVA in the 1990s but became a dedicated instructor in 2010.

2 thoughts on “National Geographic’s Poo Map”

    1. Thx. I happened to come across the China and North Korea examples when doing a bit of research to better understand the issue. I was surprised by poo proclivity in both countries.

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