Water composting pit latrines. (1) One set of doors is locked while the other is in use. Urinals are separate. (2) Cross section of one stall (3) Solar panel (4) Full pit (5) Pit in use.
R otary has a long history when it comes to toilets. In 1907, the Rotary Club of Chicago responded to a lack of public facilities by building a “comfort station” outside City Hall – one of the first Rotary service projects. Rotarians’ minds are still in the toilet today (and that’s a good thing).
The Rotary Foundation has granted more than US$4.7 million for water and sanitation projects over the past five years. Clubs have provided water and sewer lines to a village in Peru, installed bathrooms with flush toilets in a school in Belize, and brought Ecosan waterless composting pit latrines to four boarding schools in southwestern Uganda.
Rotarians in Kabale proposed installing the Ecosan toilets to replace poorly engineered pit latrines that posed a health hazard to students and teachers, says Robert Lyon, a member of the Rotary Club of Wheaton, Ill., USA. “When it rained, the pit toilets would sometimes collapse or overflow and contaminate the environment,” he explains. The Rotary Club of Kabale supervised the construction of the new toilets, partnering with the Rotary clubs of Carol Stream, West Chicago, and Wheaton on the project, funded by a Matching Grant from The Rotary Foundation.
That approach – working with local Rotarians to identify appropriate technology – is the best way to plan a sanitation project, says Daniele Lantagne, a public health engineer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who specializes in safe water systems. “Team up with someone on the ground who is already doing something in the community,” she recommends. “Complete an assessment – go there, see what’s happening, see what people like, and find out what the practices are.”
Cultural norms and accepted behaviors all come into play, she notes, and anyone contemplating a sanitation project ignores them at their peril. Lantagne, who spoke at the Water and Sanitation Rotarian Action Group’s water summits in Los Angeles in 2008 and Birmingham, England, in 2009, emphasizes the importance of what’s called the sanitation ladder. “The ladder starts with open defecation – the worst – and goes up one step at a time,” she says.
The next rung
The next rung is unimproved sanitation facilities, such as uncovered pit latrines and bucket latrines, which don’t provide a barrier between people and their waste products. Then come facilities that are shared by more than one household, such as public toilets. At the top of the ladder, improved sanitation facilities ensure that waste is fully separated from human contact and eventually handled in a hygienic fashion. These include pit latrines with a slab, ventilated improved pit latrines, eco squat toilets, composting toilets, and flush toilets that are connected to a septic tank or sewer system.
In 2006, according to UNICEF, 24 percent of people throughout Africa practiced open defecation and 23 percent used unimproved facilities, while 15 percent had access to shared facilities and 38 percent to improved facilities.
“You try to get people one more rung up the ladder,” Lantagne says. “The most successful thing I’ve seen is community-led total sanitation, or CLTS. This works on the concept of shame. You walk into a community and there’s a sign that says, ‘We don’t do open defecation here.’ It’s a software solution. Lots of times Rotary clubs are more interested in hardware solutions – in the United States, there’s a push toward eco-toilets, for instance – but you have to start with the software.”
As far as hardware goes, the slab is the first-line approach. Usually made of concrete, this covers the pit and converts it into a squat toilet. “You can tell families, You dig the pit and build the superstructure, and we’ll provide the slab,” Lantagne says. “That’s the expensive part.”
In places with enough open land, moveable latrines are a good option for many families, she notes. A single person can dig a new pit when the original one fills up and move the slab and superstructure to the new location. “We tell people that the latrine superstructure should not cost more than their house,” Lantagne says. Brick latrines are not only expensive, but the superstructure can’t be moved. A variation on the moveable latrine is the “arbor loo”. A family plants a fruit tree over each filled pit, and because the fertilized soil can increase the tree’s production, the family’s diet as well as its income can benefit.
“The worst thing is picking a technology before you have any idea where you’re going, and dropping it in someplace where you don’t know the usage patterns and preferences,” Lantagne says. “That’s not going to work.”
When new equipment such as composting toilets or urine-diverting toilets is introduced, it’s important to work with the community to change behavior and provide whatever training is needed. The Ecosan toilets now in use in the Ugandan schools are pit toilets with brick superstructures. There are two pits per block, and half the doors on each block remain locked while one pit fills up. Then the other side is locked, and a solar panel heats up the waste to speed its transformation into compost. The clubs have ensured that the communities know how to use the new technology.
“All they need to do is lock the doors on the one side after that pit fills up,” says Cathy Hetrick, president of the Wheaton club. “It’s pretty self-sustaining as long as you know when to open and shut the doors. All you have to do is the harvesting.”
The Illinois Rotarians have visited Uganda several times to check on the project. Involving the community was key, Hetrick says. Donated labor and locally made bricks helped keep the cost down to about $5,000 per school, for a block with eight doors. The compost will be used to fertilize the school gardens.
Difficult to talk about
“The kids were helping build, hauling rocks on weekends,” Hetrick says. “It was a huge community effort, with local Rotarians and the families of students involved. I believe anything you work that hard for, you want to keep it nice.”
Together, projects that focus on water, sanitation, and hygiene will lessen the incidence of diarrhea in developing countries, Lantagne says, but sanitation is often ignored because it’s difficult to talk about. “In many areas, we’re on target to meet the Millennium Development Goal for water,” she says. “With sanitation, we will not meet the goal.”
Many Rotarians rightly focus on the health benefits of toilets, particularly how they can help prevent diarrhea and disease. But Lantagne notes that in developing countries, diarrhea is so commonplace that it isn’t always considered a disease, so the health benefits of sanitation facilities can be a tough sell.
For most people, privacy and comfort are the real reasons to accept new toilet technologies. “Health is fifth or sixth on the list,” Lantagne says. “We’re telling people, You need to use latrines because it affects diarrhea. What we need to say is, Look, it’s private. A lot of it has to do with social norms – my neighbor has it, so I want it too.”