URUGUAY: 'Dry Toilets' Provide Ecological Solution in Slums

  • by Inés Acosta (barros blancos, uruguay)
  • Monday, December 28, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

But thanks to an innovative community project, her family now has a shower and what is known as a dry toilet, which operate using alternative, non-polluting ecological systems - a far cry from the buckets that the family used to use, which were simply emptied into a nearby unlined pit.

The family made up of 44-year-old Marisabel and her seven children is one of 30 beneficiaries of the 'appropriate sanitation for vulnerable sectors in the metropolitan area of Montevideo' project, financed by the European Union and carried out by the non-governmental Uruguayan Centre for Appropriate Technologies (CEUTA).

The project helps local residents install dry toilets - an ecological sanitation solution that saves water, separates urine from solid waste, and returns nutrients contained in human feces to agriculture, by converting waste into manure after a special treatment process.

It also separates so-called gray water - from sinks, washing machines and showers, for example - for reuse. In addition, rainwater is collected and compost heaps are created for other kinds of organic waste.

Another aspect of the project is the creation of small-scale constructed wetlands, as biological filters of the previously separated waste water.

The aim of ecological sanitation is to recover nutrients that would otherwise be discarded.

'I joined the project, where they taught us how to build a dry toilet,' Marisabel told IPS. 'We're really happy. The kids asked what this or that is for. I used to give them a bath in a big metal tub. When I put Esteban, my six-year-old son, under the shower, he screamed that he was drowning because he didn't know what it was; now he loves it, and washes up all by himself.'

The two-year programme, which got underway in May, involves families living in Barros Blancos, an eight-square-km area of slums and semi-rural areas that is home to around 30,000 people and forms part of greater Montevideo.

Architect Igmarrey Pacheco, an expert in environmental studies and coordinator of CEUTA's ecological sanitation team, explained to IPS that an important aspect of the project is to generate, in institutions and agencies working in sanitation, know-how on appropriate technologies as viable alternatives adapted to specific local conditions.

'First we carried out a study with people who work in the different institutions. The ecological sanitation approach was introduced, and already functioning systems were visited and studied. Then on that basis, we began to design, with this inter-institutional team, a strategy to get the community involved,' he said.

'In February we will complete the construction of the new alternative sanitation systems for the first group of families, some of whom have begun to use them in their homes, and in March we'll start working with the second group of families,' said Pacheco.

Different approaches

In this country wedged between Brazil and Argentina, 92 percent of the population of 3.3 million is urban, and 52 percent of the population lives in greater Montevideo, which extends across the border of Montevideo province into the neighbouring provinces of Canelones, to the north and east, and San José, to the west.

In the province of Montevideo, 85 percent of the population has sanitation. But in the country's other 18 provinces, coverage is just 46 percent on average.

The province of Canelones has two major areas with low sanitation coverage: the numerous informal settlements and slums on the outskirts of Montevideo, and Ciudad de la Costa (City of the Coast), which is basically a series of overlapping commuter suburbs and small beach resorts that stretch out along the coast of the Río de la Plata estuary to the east of the capital.

The pace of growth of Ciudad de la Costa over the last decade or so has outstripped infrastructure and generated serious environmental impacts on the coastal dunes.

Pacheco said there are many people living without conventional sanitation systems, and they often come up with their own solutions.

The most widely used in Uruguay is the unlined seepage pit, which allows untreated sewage to seep into the earth and often overflows when it rains, with the resultant contamination of soil and groundwater.

Although there are other alternatives to the traditional sanitation system, ecological sanitation is not merely a new technology, but a whole new approach, which sees human excreta as a reusable resource rather than a waste product, said Pacheco.

'Ecological sanitation sees human feces as a potential source of natural fertiliser, to be reused in the soil,' he said.

'There are cultures that have a tradition of, and accept, the management of human excreta, as in the case of Asia and the East, and others, like the West, where there is a cultural rejection of human feces,' said Pacheco.

Alternative systems like dry toilets provide various benefits, he pointed out. 'They don't require major investments in pipe networks and treatment plants, and because of their high level of efficiency in filtering out impurities, they avoid contamination of soil and water sources.'

In addition, he said, 'if we collect the urine, store it, treat it, and later use it as a natural fertiliser in agriculture, we are generating an alternative to chemicals and tapping into an available resource.'

Change of mind set

In Pacheco's view, policy-makers and those in charge of sanitation tend to see conventional systems as the only possible alternative.

He also believes there is prejudice against alternative systems due to the lack of familiarity with them and failure to promote them.

'Information on these kinds of sanitation systems should be included in academic courses, and in the training of public employees that work in areas directly related to these questions,' he said.

'Ecological sanitation not only depends on the expertise of engineers, architects or sanitation technicians, but should also be included in other disciplines, like health or social sciences, anthropology and environmental education. A shift in mind set towards our feces must involve a cultural and social, and not just technical, change,' he said.

The United Nations declared 2008 the International Year of Sanitation to boost progress towards fulfilling the seventh Millennium Development Goal (MDG), one of whose specific targets is to halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, from 1990 levels.

The eight MDGs, meant to be achieved by the year 2015, were adopted by the United Nations member states in 2000. They also include ensuring universal primary education, reducing by half the proportion of people in the world suffering from poverty and hunger, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, and ensuring environmental sustainability.

A total of 2.6 billion people in the world still lack basic sanitation, which has a direct impact on human health and development.

'A population without a sanitation system is a population at permanent social and environmental risk, and the hardest hit are children who live in those areas, whose cognitive development is affected,' said Pacheco.

Ecological sanitation systems are a low-cost, efficient, appropriate technology alternative to help solve the crisis, he said.

'If we complement the existing conventional systems with decentralised, autonomous alternative systems, we can achieve broader coverage, especially when conventional sanitation is not viable,' he said.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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