Location: The Development Set on Medium
For 14 years, forty-year old Marline Jean did not have a toilet in her home. When she needed to relieve herself, she used one of the methods popular among toilet-less Cap-Haitien residents. Some days, when she was in a public setting, she would get to use a pit latrine, similar to one you may find at a campsite. Other times, she would find a quiet spot in a field. When she was running short on time, she’d use a “flying toilet,” meaning that she’d throw an excrement-filled plastic bag into ditches or trash piles.
Now, Jean climbs the wooden ladder to her concrete roof to find a porta-potty encased in blue plastic. Ten feet away, her vegetable garden is in full bloom, thanks to the minerals created from human compost. Jean’s toilet, like hundreds of others in the city, is part of a program that turns urine and feces safe for reuse as agricultural manure.
The use of human waste as compost may first give pause — but to Jean, it’s a minor miracle. “Everyone who comes here and goes to use the toilet always has a lot of questions about it,” she said. “Some don’t even believe that this is possible.”
Even in the Haitian capital 150 miles away, less than a third of metropolitan Port-au-Prince’s three million residents have access to improved sanitation facilities.
The problem with poor sanitation is that it piles up. Plastic bags burst open and poorly maintained latrines overflow. Human waste clogs drainage canals. When it rains, as it often does suddenly and heavily in Haiti, a slow river of sludge spills onto the streets.
Even if a home has a toilet, the city’s sanitation system isn’t equipped to handle the waste that flows through it. “When I first came to Haiti, I stayed in a home that had an actual toilet, but the only way it could be flushed was by pouring water from a bucket directly into the bowl,” said Joanne Gaillard, a humanitarian worker. “The toilet was usually flushed once a day.” Underground sanitation workers called bayakou need to de-sludge latrines and septic pipes underneath homes like Gaillard’s. It’s a stigmatized but necessary job that, until recently, went unregulated.
Most waste in Haiti ends up in rivers, untreated and sometimes contaminated — such as with cholera, which swept through the fragile country in 2010, ten months after a massive earthquake killed approximately 300,000 people and displaced another 1.5 million.
“Cholera is a disease that causes severe, watery diarrhea,” said Dr. Edward Ryan, director of the Tropical and Geographic Medicine Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. “When the person has the diarrhea, the stool that comes out is heavily laden with millions and millions of the bacteria that cause the infection. If that diarrhea contaminates something else, whether it’s the water supply or food supply, then that’s the way cholera spreads.”
Haiti’s outbreak was traced to inadequate and poorly maintained toilets in a United Nations Nepalese peacekeeping camp in the mountain town of Mirabalais. The bacteria-laden fecal matter leaked into the Meille River, eventually flowing into one of Haiti’s main waterways.
8,500 people died during the outbreak, and it continued to infect an average of 385 people per week during 2014. “At the end of the day, it’s a sin that anybody dies of cholera because it means that some very basic sanitation and water metrics were not met,” said Dr. Ryan.
Dry toilets offer one method of preventing human waste from contaminating groundwater or rivers. The inside of Jean’s porta-potty looks like a common bathroom. There is toilet paper and what looks like normal toilet, a white plastic lid sitting atop a knee-high wooden box, made by local carpenters. Inside this box, however, is a urine-diverting dry toilet (UDDT), containing a 5 gallon bucket that catches solid waste and a smaller 1-gallon container for urine.
After Jean or her family use the toilet, they cover their waste with a layer of bagasse, sugarcane plant parts left over after rum processing. A small container of the sawdust-like material sits in a corner on the floor of the bathroom.
The ecological sanitation, or EcoSan, toilet on Jean’s roof — and in 600 other Haitian homes — come from SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods), a Haiti-based nongovernmental organization. They cost between $30 and $50 to build, with a $5 monthly rental fee. In comparison, it costs slightly more to build a simple pit latrine, which must be emptied every few years at up to $300 a pop.
Besides cost, I’ve personally found the smell to differ widely between traditional latrines and composting toilets. When using Jean’s toilet, the woody, sweet smell of bagasse overpowered any aroma of waste. This is in stark contrast to latrines, which smell like, well, latrines.
“We call it bonzodé, which is Creole for good smell,” said SOIL systems director, Erica Lloyd, in reference to the sugarcane bagasse, dirt, and ground peanut shells used to cover waste.
Each week, SOIL sends a truck to collect the UDDT buckets. Large families have an extra bucket, in case theirs fills up before collection day. The truck then travels to Mouchinette, SOIL’s composting facility.
Newly arrived buckets find their way into a large container for raw incoming waste, where thermophilic microorganisms break down the material for a month. Compost requires the cultivation of aerobic, or oxygen-loving, bacteria in order to ensure “thermophilic decomposition.” The sugarcane bagasse helps create air spaces for these bacteria to thrive. The container is then turned and aerated for three more months. Finally, it is placed in an open compost bin where high oxygen levels promote further decomposition for three to five months.
Finally, eight months after being collected, completed compost sits in a separate bin. It is high in minerals, odorless, and free of pathogens.
SOIL, a social business, treats 240,000 gallons of waste each year. In addition to giving compost to the families from whom it collects waste, the organization sells finished compost to farmers and businesses around the country.
SOIL agricultural coordinator Job Etienne said he wants to show Haitians that something that is universally considered “waste” actually has tremendous benefits. On that note, Jean recalled that after an explanation of how composting works — and more importantly, seeing and smelling the finished dirt product — she was excited to help turn a public nuisance into something useful.
Can EcoSan toilets become a long-term solution in Haiti and other places without formal waste systems?
“Much of the developed world views pipes and sewage systems as ‘the answer’ to the global sanitation crisis,” said Jasmine Burton, founder and president of a sanitation innovation and design company called Wish for WASH. “I believe that as long as we are getting poop away from people via a sustainable and user-centered approach, they can live healthier and more dignified lives. The beauty of working in this space is that innovation is continuous and there is no burden of existing infrastructure.”
For its part, SOIL founder Sasha Kramer argues that its solution is “a systems approach and may very well be the way the world is heading, given the expectation of scarce water resources in the future.”
That said, business models like SOIL’s have their limitations. Currently, vehicles collect waste from participating households every week. But vehicle maintenance costs are very high because of broken roads and rough terrain. SOIL is now researching alternative transport methods like wheelbarrows and 3-wheeled motorcycles for local collections.
Even the bagasse used inside the toilets has a potential future cost. The organic byproduct is in demand for other waste projects in Haiti. SOIL does not currently pay for the raw material, but in anticipation of future shortages and costs, they’ve added peanut shells, coffee grounds and ground sorghum stalks as potential cover material.
But the alternative — creating a comprehensive sewage network — is expensive and complicated. Cost estimates for a more traditional nationwide sanitation overhaul in Haiti, which would include increasing access to potable water and the treatment of wastewater and excreta, reach over $2.2 billion.
This is out of the reach of Haiti’s budget — and foreign aid hasn’t been able to fill the gaps. “For decades, water and sanitation have been neglected in Haiti, with serious consequences for public health,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at a conference in late 2014. “We now need to catch up. We must help the Haitian people.”
Some, like Brian Concannon, who directs the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), believe that the United Nations could play a larger role in improving Haiti’s sanitation system, especially after introducing the cholera epidemic. “They’ve spent money [on peacekeeping missions] that by their own estimates could create a sanitation system,” he said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a Haitian who thinks that was a good use of money.”
The long-term sustainability of SOIL is yet to be tested. “I think the profitability of an alternative sanitation company has yet to be proven,” said SOIL Cap-Haitien systems manager Shannon Smith. “There’s not a huge market because the competing options of open defecation and flying toilets are free.”
After all, when a low-income family is making choices between basics food and school tuition, paying for sanitation becomes another competing demand.
For now, though, the toilet is a boon for users like Jean. “I would like to get my roof completely full of gardens,” said Jean. “I want a really big garden where I can use food for me and my family and also sell a little bit to the neighborhood.”
Photographs by Chris Buck for The Development Set.// The Development Set is made possible by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.