Droughts and dry spells caused by climate change often worsen hygiene conditions and pose a threat to human health. Dry, composting toilets can help ease the problem since they need no water and even generate money.
Tucked away in the heart of Bolivia, the small village of Cuchumuela is only home to some 2,000 people, but it is well known beyond its borders. Here, scattered under the cool shade of leafy pine trees, a unique and extremely valuable species of mushrooms grows wild.
The boletes family of mushrooms are sought after by gastronomists and top-notch restaurants the world over, and they have increased in popularity in recent years. One kilogram of the precious fungus cost just 14 cents not too long ago. Now, the price for a kilo has soared to nearly $4.
The mushroom business has become a vital source of income for families in Cuchumuela, who normally depend on subsistence agriculture and earn the equivalent of about $1,000 a year. The success of the Cuchumuela mushroom is in large part due to the improved hygienic conditions in the community, especially the toilet systems.
Climate change exacerbates hygiene deficits
Betty Soto, who works for a local NGO called “Water for People-Bolivia,” said improving incomes for farmers in the area is an important step, but it is not her organization’s first priority.
“Our goal actually is to improve hygienic conditions for Bolivians,” she said. “In Cuhcumuela, only about half the population has access to a toilet in their homes. Many people use the wide open land around them when they need to relieve themselves.” In some parts of Bolivia, only 9 percent of people have toilets in their homes.
“Expanding the use of sanitary facilities is important because it can drastically reduce the breakout of disease,” said Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, a senior scientist at the World Health Organization’s public health and environment department. “That is especially important when it comes to diarrheal conditions, which are among the most widespread diseases in the world.”
Following basic hygienic practices like washing hands or properly disposing of human waste is particularly crucial in arid regions. And dry spells - brought on by climate change - only exacerbate the problem.
“Water and hygiene are two of the most important mechanisms affected by climate change,” said Campbell-Lendrum. “In developing countries, dry spells clearly have negative effects on health. The rate of diarrheal diseases increases significantly.”
Hygiene without water: composting toilets
With water scarcity increasingly on the rise in Bolivia, Water for People has set its sights on expanding and popularizing the use of so-called composting toilets.
Unlike traditional toilet models, composting toilets do not consume any water and do not require complex sewage systems. But they are far more advanced than crude outhouses, where hygiene and smell both present a problem.
“We are focusing on so-called Urine-Diverting Dry Toilet (UDDT),” said Betty Soto. “The entire facility is made up of two stalls, each containing one toilet. The urine flows into separate tanks while solid excrement is collected in two basins underneath the toilets. If one of the basins is full, people can use the other stall.”
After six months, the solid excrement is composted and turned into valuable top soil. As for the urine tanks, a small company comes by once a month to empty them as well. Just one of these UDDT’s can serve a family of anywhere from five to ten people.
In Cuchumuela, the toilets are constructed on-site. The ecological and hygienic benefits of the eco-friendly facilities are beginning to gain popularity in many regions of the world. “Waterless toilets have become a major theme for development organizations that are working on improving hygiene,” said Elisabeth von Münch from Sustainable Sanitation Alliance, a loose network of international organizations working on sanitation.
“Innovation was lacking for a long time in our field. There were either outhouses or flush toilets with sewage systems,” she said. But since 2008, which was designated the “International Year of Sanitation,” interest in composting toilets has surged. There are even companies that offer the green toilets as a modern, cutting-edge alternative.
Elisabeth von Münch pointed out that the dry toilets aren’t just a good choice for rural regions, but also in slums in major cities, where ground water is often contaminated and access to clean water and sanitation is problematic – especially as every seventh person in the world now lives in an urban area.
From waste to riches
Since 2010, 195 composting toilets have been set up in Cuchumuela. The rate of diarrheal disease has fallen significantly. It’s a significant development since the disease is a major killer in poorer parts of the world. The World Heath Organization estimates that some 1.5 million children die every year from diarrheal diseases.
“People were quite skeptical in the beginning,” said Betty Soto from Water for People. But that changed, especially as the prices for Cuchumuela’s famous mushrooms continued to rise.
“The concept is simple,” said Soto. One of the best benefits of composting toilets is that they not only protect the environment from pollution, but they also hold enrich nature. The people of Cuchumuela use the soil produced from composting solid waste, and they even turn the urine into organic fertilizer for the pine tree plantations.
“The composting toilets produce fertilizer, the fertilizer helps the pine trees grow, and more pine trees means more mushrooms, and more mushrooms means more money for the families in Cuchumuela,” said Betty Soto. A win-win situation indeed.
Author: Eva Mahnke/ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar