With new technological innovations for humanitarian aid – like the solar powered ambulances in Mumbai, or SMS technologies spreading aid and awareness – it can be easy to lose sight of more basic initiatives to address the most basic human needs. An international conference on Ecological Safety, held earlier this month in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, called attention to a dangerous sanitation issue by offering an inspiring and feasible solution.
The problem: international donors are still promoting pit latrines, says Dr. Claudia Wendland of Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF), but most families can't afford to pay for safe emptying of the pits. In humid climates like those found in Central Asia, Caucasus and Eastern Europe, the latrines can become dangerous as a result, often leaking and polluting puddles in nearby streets and gardens, leaking into streams or even leaching into groundwater. Contamination ruins an already-limited clean drinking water supply, and puts the local community, particularly children, at risk for bacterial disease.
A new and more sustainable sanitation system promises to change the game, if advocates can generate the resources and policy action necessary to support it. According to Sascha Gabizon, executive director of WCEF, dry or low-flush urine diverting toilets, combined with natural filtration ponds to purify grey water from sinks and showers, is a much safer sanitation system that can be implemented at a cost similar to that of the latrines.
One major aim of the conference was to demonstrate the feasibility of this system on a local level, and to push for legislation that supports leapfrogging to this and other sanitation systems that reuse nutrients and save water.
According to a release from the WECF:
The 200 participants of the conference were invited to visit 3 demonstration projects showing how wastewater from kitchens and bathrooms was efficiently cleaned using a "soil filter," a sealed pond in which sand and plants clean the wastewater to achieve the quality of bathing water, The participants also visited 2 different types of dry urine diverting toilets. The cost of the toilets vary between 200 and 450 Euro, including a wash facility and light, this is much cheaper than having to build a flush-toilet and connecting to a sewage system, which in most villages does not exist in any case. The cost of the soil filter for 5 people amounts to about 950 euro, also less expensive than connecting to a sewage system.
"In regions without central water supply ... they can be used without flushing water, are hygienic and safe and reuse the nutrients from urine and faeces in agriculture. Ponds and constructed wetlands are natural systems for treating wastewater in cases where flushing toilets exist," says Wendland.
Gabizon says the WCEF strategy is to first demonstrate the new sustainable sanitation systems "in a variety of small and large scale applications, from households to schools to entire villages." This phase will rely on aid funding. "However, once their efficiency and cost benefits demonstrated, we hope that all countries in the EECCA region will join the water and health protocol, and thus work under a common legally binding framework, where performance based targets will be set, which would mean that pit latrines would no longer be an acceptable solution but that a variety of other solutions would be available. Our aim is that each household and each school or other public building has access to a safe sanitation system."
Photos courtesy of WCEF.
This article explains what happens to the greywater, but what about blackwater or, in the case of dry toilets, feces and the diverted urine? Is it composted in a humanure sort of way?
Thanks for your question. Here's what Claudia Wendland at WECF has to say about the solid waste treatment:
The aim of the concept is to use it as soil conditioner which is important to cope with soil degradation in many parts of the world.
How it works: The faeces are covered with ashes, soil, saw dust or sand, each time after defecating, in order to avoid any smell and to enhance the drying process. The solids are staying at least 1 year in the tight (and ventilated) chamber and get dry. Pathogens are then inactivated to a high extent but not totally. To completely kill the pathogens, a post composting is required. The duration of the sanitization of the faeces depends on the ambient temperature (between 6 and 24 months) which is regulated in 2006 WHO guidelines for the use of excreta in agriculture.
Ok, so it sounds like thermophilic composting is not a WHO requirement. That's a good thing, as it will make the technique more accessible to a greater number of people.
These simple solutions are at the heart of our sustainable future. I own a garbage removal company and we get called to pick up "garbage" on a daily basis, knowing full well that much of this "waste" could be recycled one way or another. Hopefully, in time, we will start to finally see that these simple attempts to solve environmental problems will save our planet over the long term.