If you live in developed parts of the world, beware, because this article is going to talk about two things that might make you say ew: the problem of open defecation and the use of human waste as fertilizer. Many people around the world have good reason to tackle both of these issues. And World Neighbors, a non-profit organization, simultaneously reaches out to rural communities in Bihar, India.
The problem of open defecation
Open defecation means number two happens outside the toilet. In fields, streams, bushes, forests, streets, anywhere. The countries where this happens the most are India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia. People unaccustomed to this state of affairs might think that the problem is the lack of toilets. While this is partly to blame, other factors are also at work.
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The Indian government has worked hard to make life more hygienic, including building over 95 million toilets across the country. After this achievement, the country declared itself Open Defecation Free (ODF) in 2019. But many people are not a fan of toilets.
“We have been defecating in the open for many years, it has become a habit now,” Vandana Kumari, a resident of Bargadia village in Uttar Pradesh, told The Wire. “Toilets built in households are mostly unused. We tried to use it but the sludge is flowing into sewers located just in front of our house. It’s a 10-15 minute walk to the jungle where we find it safe to defecate in the open.
For those who are used to using fields, it is totally crude and counter-intuitive to want to do this at home. Indian Hindus also have cultural taboos on cleanliness and purity that prevent the cleaning and maintenance of toilets – tasks seen as befitting the untouchable caste. Indian Muslims have been quicker to accommodate toilets in their homes. Some experts believe this explains why Muslim children have a better chance of living to celebrate their fifth birthday, despite being a disadvantaged minority in India. Additionally, open defecation could be the reason one in five Indian children are stunted.
Some of the objections are practical. Septic tank toilets – one of three types of toilets widely used in India – have a bad habit of accumulating sludge in drains near dwellings. This makes the risk of exposure to fecal bacteria worse than using a field. In drought-prone villages, people prefer to use limited water for drinking and washing rather than flushing the toilet.
World Neighbors works in Bihar, India
The international development organization World Neighbors is helping people in rural communities in Madhubani district in Bihar to solve the problem of contamination from open defecation and turn hazardous waste into usable fertilizer. Bihar is a state in northeastern India that borders Nepal.
The World Neighbors project included 2,500 households in 20 rural communities. The organization has focused on water, sanitation, hygiene, nutrition and reproductive health to reduce disease and raise living standards. After the intervention, three of the affected villages obtained ODF status from their village councils. The Dalits, aka the Untouchables, lived in 12 of the communities and had substandard water, sanitation and hygiene practices.
“Some 76% of the population in North Bihar live under the recurrent threat of flooding,” according to World Neighbors. “It adds another dimension to human waste management. That which is excreted in the open can be washed into streams, rivers and other water sources, greatly increasing the risk of disease to humans and livestock.
Introducing EcoSan Toilets
EcoSan toilets are dry toilets built on raised platforms with separate concrete chambers below.
“After defecating, sprinkle a handful of ashes and close the lid,” World Neighbors said. “No rinsing is necessary. There are separate outlets for urine and washing so that no water enters the excrement chamber.
This dry approach reduces odors and insect breeding and speeds up decomposition. A household uses a pot and a chamber for up to six months. When it’s full, they seal it and use the second chamber. By the time they filled chamber two, the contents of chamber one had turned into odorless compost suitable for fertilizer. Household members mix water with urine collected in a separate container for additional fertilizer. The cost of each EcoSan toilet is between $250 and $375, depending on location and transportation costs.
This human manure fertilizer has a name: Sona Khad, which means golden fertilizer. Spending six months in the EcoSan breaks down pathogens in feces, minimizing the risk of introducing bad stuff into the soil or water. Sona Khad is inexpensive and nutrient dense, with plenty of phosphorus to support plant growth. Instead of buying chemical fertilizers, EcoSan toilets allow farming families to make their own. Urinary fertilizer is a natural pesticide.
Helping people in rural India improve their sanitation and crops is just one of World Neighbors’ projects. The organization works in 14 countries on four continents, primarily in the areas of sustainable agriculture, community-based natural resource management, community and reproductive health, and gender equity. The toilet project fits into all of these areas.
Via the wire, neighbors of the world
Images via World Neighbors and Pexels