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Waste Not, Want Not 

Linking Sanitation With Sustainability in Haiti

On Jan. 12, the same day this story was submitted for publication in OFFICIAL, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, leaving in its wake a scene of massive devastation and loss of life. A month later, the Haitian government reported that between 217,000 and 230,000 people had been reported dead, another 300,000 were injured and an estimated 1,000,000 were homeless. Cap-Haitien, where SOIL headquarters are located and where its founders, Sasha Kramer and Sarah Brownell, live, was far enough from the epicenter to escape much of the destruction and loss of life that occurred elsewhere. But as donations began arriving from the United States to support the organization’s humanitarian mission, SOIL refocused its efforts on providing immediate relief for the Haitian people by supplying them with potable water, food, medicine, tarps and other essential supplies.

As Latin America’s most impoverished nation, more than half of Haiti’s nine million people live in abject poverty. Approximately two-thirds of the labor force lacks formal jobs, the country imports four times as many goods as it exports and most of the population is chronically malnourished. Sadly about the only thing Haitians have in abundance is human waste.

But that, it seems, is sufficient cause to give an organization called Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) hope for their future.

Established in 2006 by Sasha Kramer, a former human rights observer and ecologist, and Sarah Brownell, an engineer, SOIL’s objectives are “protecting soil resources, empowering communities and transforming wastes into resources in Haiti.” Tracing the bulk of Haiti’s problems to inadequate sanitation facilities and lack of soil nutrients, they determined the best way for SOIL to achieve these goals was by introducing new toilet technologies to the Haitian people.

The Soil’s Gone and There’s No Place to Go

Among the many other things they lack, most Haitians have no access to any toilet at all – sanitary or otherwise. As a result, they’re forced to dispose of their wastes wherever they can – in the ocean, rivers, ravines, abandoned houses – or in what are popularly known as “flying toilets,” consisting of grocery bags that are tied up and flung away.

So it is not surprising that diarrhea and dehydration are rampant and, according to UNICEF, roughly 70 percent of the population lacks access to safe drinking water in Haiti, where children frequently die from exposure to fecal contaminated sources.

At the same time, while forests once covered 60 percent of the country, less than one percent remains. With the forests gone, each time it rains more and more topsoil washes into the sea. In a country where the primary source of food for most families is from back yard and small-scale farming, production has declined so dramatically due to poor soil fertility and a lack of fertilizer that it has frequently been described as a humanitarian disaster.

Enter the Ecological Sanitation Solution

In order to address Haiti’s problems of poor soil and unsanitary waste disposal, SOIL turned to a solution involving the use of low-cost, ecosan (ecological sanitation) or “dry” toilets to collect, compost and recycle human waste for agricultural and horticultural applications. Previously field-tested in Africa, they seemed ideal for resource-deprived conditions like those in Haiti, where personal gardening was practiced and the climate was warm with alternating wet and dry seasons.

To be implemented successfully, however, the local population needed to be educated about how to use ecosan toilets, be willing to accept them and be prepared to tear down any existing unsanitary facilities. In addition, an infrastructure was required to support the conversion of waste products into compost and facilitate its distribution for use in agriculture and for planting trees. In an attempt to satisfy these requirements, SOIL has focused on several applications of ecosan technology that are currently in different stages of development.

Making Progress One Toilet at a Time

The first successful deployment of ecosan toilets has been in communities that did not previously have access to safe sanitation. Public dry toilets have been installed at more than 50 schools and community groups in Haiti, with the demand for additional toilets outpacing SOIL’s financial ability to provide them. In addition to addressing an area of greatest need, the purpose of this deployment was to familiarize entire communities with dry toilets, so they would be more likely to adopt household versions on an individual basis later on.

Making these inexpensive, household versions of ecosan toilets available took a major step forward in 2009 when SOIL began work on a pilot project in Cap-Haiten, Haiti, to demonstrate their effectiveness. Developed in collaboration with engineers from several U.S. universities, these toilets channel urine into a soak pit where it can be collected, diluted and used directly on trees as nourishment. Solid waste is gathered in a bucket and covered with a drying material such as saw dust or sugar cane bagass — a byproduct of rum manufacturing in Haiti — that helps create a barrier against odor and flies.

Together with waste from SOIL’s public ecosan toilets in the surrounding communities, waste from household toilets will be transported to a central processing facility nearby, which is also being developed as a pilot project by SOIL. After being mixed with other organic materials, it remains there for a year until it is free of organisms, then tested to ensure it meets public health standards and sold to local farmers as high-quality, low-cost compost. Designed to be scalable, it is hoped this facility can be used to process human and organic waste products from thousands of Cap-Haiten residents in the future.

In addition to its municipal composting facility, SOIL is also developing safe and inexpensive methods for composting household waste on site and is planting experimental gardens to demonstrate and encourage the use of dry toilet technology and composting.

Another application of ecosan technology in Haiti is taking place in two rural communities where SOIL is promoting ecological sanitation methods using hurricane-resistant “arborloos.” Concealing a shallow pit, arborloos consist of PVC frames embedded in concrete and covered with sheets of roofing material. Once a pit is filled with human waste and table scraps mixed with soil, the light-weight super- structure is moved to a new location and a fruit tree is planted in its place. Providing Haitians with the potential for both food and income, arborloos cost less that $100 to build and are sturdy and not unattractive — increasing the odds that Haitians will use them.

The Ripple Effect of Ecosan Technology

SOIL describes its guiding philosophy as a belief “that the path to sustainability is through transformation both of discarded materials and marginalized people.“

Consistent with this, one thing it hopes to achieve by promoting the adoption of ecosan toilet technology is improving the extremely dangerous and unsafe working conditions for Haitians called “Bayakou,” who collect and dispose of human waste. Considered the lowest members in a society that starts very low to begin with, Bayakou are routinely subjected to arrest, harassment and bribery for transporting their “goods.”

SOIL is also actively involved in tapping into the Haitians’ own native ingenuity and has established several special centers throughout the country where Haitians can present and test technologies they’ve developed that have the potential for improving the country’s health, environment and economic independence. In addition, contests that encourage children to transform garbage by turning it into something useful are sponsored by SOIL to inspire the next generation of Haitians to recycle and reuse their limited resources.

Beyond Haiti, SOIL hopes that what happens there will provide a practical demonstration of how a similar approach can be employed in other countries where approximately 2.4 billion people also live in agricultural communities that suffer from extreme poverty, depleted resources and unsanitary waste disposal.

Because with a little help from SOIL and other organizations like it, what constitutes one country’s waste, could become another country’s windfall.

To find out more about what SOIL is doing in Haiti both long-term and in response to the current crisis – as well as how you can join in helping them – please visit their Website at www.oursoil.org.