Fecal Sludge Sourcing Series: Toilets Are Not Enough

For 1.1 billion people, when nature calls, it means run to the bush or scramble for a plastic bag to use as a “helicopter toilet” – whirling bags of waste that characterize the airspace of poor urban neighborhoods across the globe.

The lack of sanitation facilities contributes significantly to the 2.4 million deaths per year due to water related illnesses.  And the knee jerk reaction to these staggering health facts seems logical: build toilets, contain the waste, and prevent disease causing agents from proliferating.

Campaigns such as the UN Millennium Development Goals have helped to raise public awareness of the lack of access to basic of sanitation services in developing nations. They have funded large-scale projects focused on building new toilets for households worldwide. Toilet Expos sponsored by The World Toilet Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” have lead to impressive milestones in toilet design.

But toilets are not enough.

Without a plan for emptying, pit latrines become dangerous biohazards for users, the surrounding community, and latrine emptiers. Because pit latrines are one of the cheapest sanitation “solutions” out there, they are used by approximately 1.77 billion users worldwide, including in urban areas where they are inappropriate, given their quick fill rates and the lack of space to dig  new holes.

In the urban context of dense settlements and increased flooding due to climate change, pit latrines offer little protection from the public health consequences they were designed to prevent. They fill quickly and often, and the most affordable and available option for emptying is hiring manual pit latrine emptiers.

Ironically, the status quo of sending people into pit latrines to remove waste once they are full directly undermines the intended purpose of latrines: separating humans from their contagious excreta.

The solution to this problem is deploying toilets with plans for emptying, while rethinking the emptying process for existing pits. Emptying services must be affordable to households, safe and profitable for emptiers, and inclusive of a safe and legal place to dispose the sludge (such as a wastewater or fecal sludge treatment plant).

Integrated fecal sludge management solutions must address gaps from emptying and collection to transportation and treatment. Business opportunities need to be created for all service providers at all levels of the sanitation value chain to incentivize entrepreneurs, households, and local authorities to implement and maintain safe and reliable systems.

As described in our post on 1 September, Pivot is starting to build these chains of incentives at the level of the service providers, i.e., the emptiers. With the help of households, village elders, and other community based organizations, we have identified groups of emptiers that service households when their latrines are full. Now, we are working with these groups of emptiers to help them improve the safety of their work and offer better services that will expand their customer base. We have provided training sessions on health and safety and business basics. For those who have agreed to dump at the nearby wastewater treatment plant where we're building our facility, we have rewarded them in the form of  personal protective gear to reduce the transmission of infectious agents in sludge, and simple technologies such as mechanical sludge pumps that can lead to significant time savings and more business.

Shown is a picture from our ongoing entrepreneurial training program. For this session, the Mombasa group was joined by Abdul, an emptier from Africa’s largest slum, Kibera in Nairobi. Abdul is part of a group of emptiers that formed with the support of Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor in Nairobi.