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Finding Health, and Opportunity, in the Latrine

Ecological sanitation, or 'ecosan,' can provide both improved hygiene and an income for the majority of the world, where just getting a sip of clean water can be a challenge.

When sanitation specialists visited the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan's Fergana Valley to convene a workshop on household sanitation, they were met with a wall of silence. In this devout Muslim community, such things were simply not discussed, particularly in mixed company.

But the subject needed to be addressed.

As recently as 1998, the Fergana Valley experienced a typhoid epidemic affecting more than 450 residents, according to the World Health Organization. Yet, the United Nations Development Programme reported that the percentage of Kyrgyzstan's population with access to safe sanitation has improved only slightly since, rising from 24 percent coverage in 1995 to 25.9 percent coverage in 2007. The UNDP added that the Kyrgyz Republic appeared "unlikely to attain its millennium development target of 40 percent coverage by 2015."

In the spring of 2003, experts from International Secretariat for Water and their local partner, the Central Asian Alliance for Water, ventured to the capital city of this mountainous region, along the ancient Silk Road, to present an eight-day workshop to introduce the methods and benefits of ecological sanitation for impoverished rural households.

"We started working with ecological sanitation because we realized conventional sanitation systems were unsustainable," said Ron Sawyer, director of Sarar Transformacion SC, based in Tepoztlan, Mexico. His organization promotes ecological sanitation, or "ecosan," projects worldwide.

Ecosan takes a "holistic view of sanitation," he said. "It's not about simply burying waste or conveying it to a stream but finding a way to recycle and reuse the nutrients contained within it. It's a technical, social and cultural approach." And when tied to education, "it becomes a way of looking at sustainability overall. Large populations in the developing world will have to find a way to contain, treat and reuse."

Sawyer added that workshops, such as the one held in Osh, act as a tool for stimulating consensus for change.

Contamination Routes and Resource Cycles
Analysis of contamination routes are a major focus of ecosan projects and participants in the Osh workshop were encouraged to analyze their food cycles and their customary hygienic practices to discover sources of contamination causing illness.

Facilitators from CAAW demonstrated waterless latrines, which would help break the contamination cycle by directing liquid and solid wastes to separate containers. The new technology would promote drying, composting and biological destruction of even the hardiest pathogens, rendering an end product safe for reuse as fertilizer.

All this was news to the audience of farmers from the Central Asian countryside, and workshop facilitators reported that some of the Uzbek participants, "particularly, the more religiously conservative," believed that "one should avoid any contact with human excrement." However when these farmers learned that the materials, when processed properly, could help remedy the chronic deficiency of phosphorus in local soils, "their resistance softened."

When told that food security could be strengthened through the use of these products, the participants became positively engaged.

They seemed to get it, and the instructors went on to offer practical advice on the construction and siting of the latrines. But still there were questions. Villagers raised the concern that a latrine next to or close to the home would expose families to obnoxious sounds or odors; facilitators countered that with proper design the latrines would be virtually odorless, ventilated by pipes carrying the gasses aloft.

They also mentioned the convenience that might be afforded by the availability of a nearby toilet during the harsh winter months. Others pointed out that site selection was no small concern, noting that people "should not face west when using the toilet (or toward a cemetery), as that is in the direction of Mecca."

During the last day of the workshop, one of the male participants climbed up on the berth of the ecosan toilet that had been provided as a demonstration model and assumed a mock squatting position - in mixed company. A paradigm shift had been effected, a cultural divide crossed and a milestone reached on the community's path to sustainability.

Sawyer said that the workshop had achieved an important goal: "A change in attitude by a significant few can frequently generate a perceptible shift in cultural norms."

At the close of the workshops, participants made verbal pledges of commitment to share what they had learned with their neighbors and to become advocates for ecological sanitation. Additionally, each of the 24 participants agreed to install an ecosan toilet in their own homes.

Brokers Can Be Fixers
Sawyer said sustainable sanitation does not necessarily mean on-site treatment; likewise, the obstacles to success are not necessarily a clash of cultures.

Ned Breslin, executive director of Water For People, agreed. In Africa south of the Sahara, he said the challenges to improved sanitation are predominately "structural and economic," particularly in fast-growing settlements on the fringes of urban areas (peri-urban). There, the constant influx of new arrivals, coupled with the haphazard, ad hoc residential layout, make connection to traditional pipe and pump sewer service all but impossible, while the crowded environs and small plot sizes render onsite treatment equally problematic.

In Africa, however, Breslin said, "The deal in sanitation is that the people who get a toilet either build it for themselves, or contract with a local mason to have one built." That's the easy part. The problem, he said, arises when the latrine pit gets full and there is no system for maintenance or sludge collection.

Breslin believes local entrepreneurs can help solve that problem. He cited an initiative from Mozambique's capital city of Maputo, population 1.1 million, where the International Society for Infectious Diseases reported cases of urban neighborhoods with one latrine for more than 20 households. In the peri-urban barrio of Urbanização, a local non-governmental organization --the Association for the Development of Water and Sanitation in Urbanização Quarter -- in partnership with the international NGO Water Aid, has begun to implement a project employing entrepreneurs to collect and properly dispose of toilet waste.

The operators, called small-scale independent providers, or SSIPs, market their services by offering to construct latrines free of charge for families in the quarter. The families, in exchange, contract with the SSIP for a fee-based sludge collection and maintenance service.

Breslin said funding for the purchase of the specialized pumping equipment, called Vacutugs, that the entrepreneurs would use was provided as a grant from Water Aid and other partners. Negotiating the winding streets of the barrio with the Vacutug units, the SSIP contractors make a circuit of their customers' households, collecting effluent from their latrine pits.

The contractor then trucks the sludge to the municipal treatment plant and pays a fee to drop it off. The spread between what SSIP operators charge for collection and what they must pay to the sanitation district for disposal generates income. With that profit, Breslin said the entrepreneurs can invest in additional latrine building materials to draw new customers.

"It is the service provider/customer relationship that makes the enterprise not only sustainable but attractive to ambitious entrepreneurs," said Breslin, adding that he considers the project a success. He says the SSIPs now "serve 1,200 families in Urbanização, and contractors have begun expanding into neighboring barrios without external funding support."

Water Aid reports that the Urbanização project "has created the first fully sanitized neighborhood of the capital city Maputo," and since its completion, "has succeeded in preventing any outbreak of cholera in an area that saw 270 cases" the previous year.

Breslin believes sanitation coverage might be accelerated with adjustments to the SSIP business model. He said that may include looking for alternative startup finance mechanisms that could be designed to encourage operators to be even more enthusiastic about marketing from the very beginning, optimizing their earning potential while maximizing sanitation coverage.

"In the long run," he said, "I'd like to see them be able to go into commercial banks for financing."

No Waste, No Problem
Sawyer said he is looking forward to innovations that will "make sustainable sanitation systems more user friendly from both the technical and financial perspective."

In its June 2007 report to Congress on the implementation of the Water for the Poor Act, which became law in 2005, the U.S. Department of State acknowledged that environmental degradation caused by "the increasingly rapid growth of untreated municipal wastewater discharge into rivers, lakes, inland and coastal groundwater aquifers around the world threatens the quality of the drinking water supply (and) public health. ... These impacts directly counteract U.S. efforts in developing countries to provide safe drinking water and other development assistance."

According to the department's brief, as a consequence of the high cost of wastewater treatment, "an additional estimated $56 billion (four times what is currently being invested) is needed annually to meet the (United Nation's) Millennium Development targets for sanitation, if wastewater treatment is included."

However in Kyrgyzstan, a fully installed ecosan dry toilet costs only $300 U.S., not much more than a standard flush toilet (for which no adequate water supply exists).

According to CAAW, the sanitation improvement project started in 2003 is beginning to show promising results. The group reports that by 2006, some 317 ecosan toilets had been installed based on a cost-sharing agreement with village families, providing service to more than 2,000 villagers in the Fergana Valley region. Using the output of these toilets as fertilizer, villagers reported that crop yields had increased dramatically. Equally important, CAAW said, typhus has been eradicated from the region and the incidence of infectious diarrhea has been reduced by 50 percent.
Ned Breslin approves of the ecosan approach.

"They think a little differently, they say there's no such thing as waste - it just needs to be transformed. It's all part of a cycle of life."