This apartment building has four units which share one hot water heater. Each apartment has one shower and two sinks with an entire occupancy of around a dozen at any given time. As you can imagine this means that having your water become unpleasantly cool in the middle of your ablutions can be a frequent hazard of hygiene. Whenever this happens I remind myself, through chattering teeth, that millions of people throughout the world don’t even have running water.

We had a Beach Boys documentary on TV and everyone in the living room was dressed in summer attire despite the wintry weather outside.Orion, wearing a wetsuit, said, “I was just thinking about that today, how we shit in drinking water. Isn’t that fucked up?” The thought, in less eloquent terms, has occurred to me in the past, usually prompting some well-intentioned and never enacted plan to sink a couple weighted shampoo bottles in the toilet’s reservoir.

I’ve noticed growing attention paid to the concept of dry toilets throughout the third world. It seemed a curious focal point for humanitarian work, but I assumed that it’s a handy device to have in an arid climate where water is scarce; this is true but the merits of these and similar ecological sanitation devices run much deeper than water tables. Nicholas D. Kristof, during a recent trip to Haiti, high-lighted the efforts of the non-profit group SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) who strive to meet sanitation needs while replenishing the nutrient starved land of one of the world’s poorest countries.

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The Americans, Sarah Brownell and Sasha Kramer, founded SOIL in 2006. Since then they have installed a variety of ecologically sound toilets for use in community centers and other public spaces. This is to help address issue one: untreated waste. There is no municipal sewage system on Haiti– almost no one has a flush toilet. Pit latrines are the common replacement but these often pollute groundwater with bacteria and pathogens or runoff into other water sources spreading disease. Improving on the latrine without using water is being tackled by installing dry toilets and arborloos.

A dry toilet is a hybrid of composting and waste treatment. The toilet has two ports, one for urine and one for shit, which are kept separate to prevent the increase of pathogens in waste. Urine is almost completely sterile until mixed with feces and feces become more virulent when wet, as well as encouraging the breeding of mosquitos. The collected urine can be diluted and used as a liquid fertilizer; urine is almost entirely made up of urea which is commonly produced through synthetic means as a commercial fertilizer. The feces are meanwhile mixed with organic matter, often ash or sawdust, which helps to break the shit down while sterilizing the pathogens which make it dangerous. The composting treatment lasts a about a year and once the pathogens have been killed the resulting mixture (which is disgustingly called humus) is a valuable fertilizer. The Chinese have been doing this since ancient times.

An arborloo is a poor man’s alternative to the dry toilet, basically acting as a shallow latrine with amenities (such as foot pads or shelter) to make the experience of use more luxurious. These are being popularized in places like Zimbabwe where Peter Morgan has been conducting studies on sanitation and related issues for decades. The latrine is used with organic matter added between applications of waste. When the pit is full the arborloo moved and the pit filled in. The gestation period is longer because the resulting mixture of urine and feces causes a more virulent adversary but when the soil is safe it increases productivity of poor soil immensely.

The improvement of soil is issue two. The third world is still predominately agricultural and Haiti, bucking the trend towards increased urbanization, is overwhelmingly so. However, poor farming methods and the ravaging of natural resources have stripped the soil of its nutrients making it very difficult to grow a successful harvest. Commercial fertilizers are expensive and beyond the reach of subsistence farmers. Having a locally produced fertilizer, especially one produced on your plot of land, that’s free and reliable can only benefit these people’s lives.

SOIL also has designs on integrating business into the mix, setting people up as toilet seat molders and pit diggers. This isn’t as interesting to me, although I’m sure that people would be happy for the opportunity of employment; the house where my mom was born had an in-door pit toilet which was cleaned out by a muck boy and I’m sure he was happy for the pay. On a side note: in the period between my mom having lived there and my first visit the pit was replaced, probably begrudgingly, when running water was introduced. The replacement? A flush squatter. You would think my great-aunt would have appreciated a break but, nope.

While the composting toilet boom of Haiti, Zimbabwe and other places of extreme hardship stems from an acute need for sanitation, I think that the developed world can learn something from their work. Water is a necessary resource for all life, yet the western world uses a disproportionate share. San Francisco parks use drinking water in their sprinklers, sprawling suburbs and desert communities (and huge cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles) drain resources, we all shit in it. Some efforts have been made to introduce dry toilets in national parks, but this seems like a pretty small step towards reducing the improper use of a valuable human resource. Cultivating grey water (non-potable but not toxic runoff water from showers, laundry, etc.), reducing the use of drinking water and less use of industrial chemicals which render water toxic should be a part of the new green economy that’s supposed to benefit from this government stimulus package. Energy is production and consumption is the hot topic of the day but the ecology is a more complicated arena than fossil vs. renewable.

Both pictures are from SOIL’s website, uncredited. The video is from The New York Times, produced by whomever Kristof had with him and narrated by Kristof himself. A woman named Jenny Benorden also produced and directed a documentary on SOIL for 4D Directions which you can watch below.

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