Stockholm Environment Institute
Waterless ecological sanitation is a work focus of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) for the last three years in Bihar, a state in eastern India, in collaboration with the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Institute (WASHi). This project includes a set of approaches that not only reduces the incidence of water-borne disease but also improves local environments and livelihoods, bringing about a range of other benefits.
Open defecation is a widespread practice in parts of India with serious implications to public health. Like many long-standing practices, it can be difficult to persuade local people to abandon open defecation. At the same time, many rural communities in India suffer from lack of adequate access to water supply, due to water scarcity or underdeveloped infrastructure.
Many attempts to turn rural villages in India and elsewhere into “open defecation-free zones” have found that the health arguments alone are not enough, even though illness related to the kinds of pathogen spread by open defecation puts major economic burdens on rural families through medical bills and lost work days. Furthermore, there is often resistance based on traditional attitudes about which social groups should handle excreta – something that is virtually inevitable in any dry sanitation system, the only viable response in areas with poor water and sewerage connectivity.
Ecological sanitation (commonly shortened to ecosan) adds persuasive new arguments for adopting sustainable sanitation systems. Ecosan describes any system that allows the excreta to be re-used (after appropriate treatment) as an agricultural fertilizer.
The annual combined excreta of one family typically contains around as much useful plant nutrients as 50 kg of urea and 50 kg of NPK (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium, common commercial chemical fertilizers) – enough to fertilize 300 to 400 square metres or more of cereal crops. In poor rural areas, where the cost of commercial fertilizers can take a big chunk out of a household’s income and can even drive some farmers into debt, ecosan can turn excreta into a very valuable resource.
A Jesuit bio-reserve and ecology centre, Tarumitra (meaning Friends of Trees, in both Hindi and Sanskrit), in the outskirts of Patna city, is a key resource in promoting ecosan in Bihar state. With support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency through the SEI/WASHi initiative, Tarumitra built a demonstration ecosan and hygiene facility on its premises, giving visitors an opportunity to see and learn about ecosan first hand.
The bio-reserve is a popular, well-run environmental education centre that cultivates a range of rare edible plant species, including traditional rice varieties, using organic methods. Tarumitra has approximately 250,000 members in more than 2,000 high schools and colleges in India and worldwide. The objectives of Tarumitra are to spread ecological sensitivity, to equip its members with skills to handle local environmental problems, and to promote the preservation of biodiversity. Tarumitra organizes residential training camps and lectures for raising environmental awareness among school children and international university students.
Ecosan is a perfect fit for Tarumitra. Compared to flush toilets, ecosan puts far less strain on limited water resources. By keeping faeces out of natural water sources, it protects the environment and health. And reclaiming the nutrients in human excreta is a form of organic farming that makes both economic and ecological sense.
The ecological sanitation facility at Tarumitra features female and male compartments, each with two urine-diverting dry toilets (which allow urine to be harvested separately from faeces) and two waterless urinals, along with washbasins. Urine is collected in a dedicated tank, along with grey water from hand washing while faeces is retained in separate processing chambers. Simple storage, according to World Health Organization guidelines, quickly makes urine safe to handle and odourless, and it is already being used to fertilize mustard, onion, potato, cabbage, and chickpea crops at Tarumitra. An agricultural expert based at the centre has started research on urine’s effectiveness as a pesticide.
Tarumitra staff designed and created the facility, in collaboration with the WASHi/SEI team. The attractively-designed complex uses natural ventilation, solar panels for lighting, and ash from camp bonfires to support the treatment of faeces. Wherever possible, local materials were used for construction. Visual materials are also prepared to guide visitors on how to use the facilities and to explain the principles behind ecosan.
According to Mr Kanchan Kumar Pathak, Programme Coordinator at Tarumitra, visitors get an introduction to the principles of closed-loop systems and the benefits of ecosan. “Closed-loop” refers to a system where nutrients are continually captured and reused, so no new input is needed.
Tarumitra continues to be an indispensable resource in promoting ecosan in Bihar. The sanitation and hygiene facility shows that dry toilets can be as clean and aspirational as any flush toilet, while the educational support and the reuse of excreta on the centre’s agricultural plots illuminate the real benefits of ecosan.
Visits to Tarumitra – and support from Tarumitra experts – help farmers from other pilot project sites under the SEI/WASHI initiative to understand why ecosan makes sense for them. And as more and more children and young people learn about ecosan during their trips to Tarumitra, it is hoped that they will spread the knowledge to their parents, friends, and neighbours and illustrate how sanitation can promote health, food security, and environmental protection.
The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) has been working with global research, capacity development, and policy advocacy on sustainable sanitation for more than 15 years, as part of its mission to bridge science with policy in environment and development issues. Among SEI’s sanitation achievements, it is worth mentioning the production of key reference publications and guidance on ecological sanitation , the joint effort of establishing the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance, and supporting the formation of regional knowledge nodes on sustainable sanitation around the world. Currently, SEI is involved in various sanitation initiatives to contribute to upscaling sustainable sanitation, e.g. focusing on productive links to food, water and energy securities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Addressing multiple objectives is considered a key strategy to engage new stakeholders necessary to expand the access for the 2.5 billion people lacking improved sanitation and ensure sustainability of the 4.2 billion without functional sanitation systems protecting health and environment.