The SOIL team of Cap-Haïtien, Haiti
Development of sanitation systems is considered one of the greatest improvements in public health over the last century. But despite advancements, 2.5 billion people around the world still live without adequate sanitation facilities. The resulting impacts from fecal matter contamination are significant, detrimentally affecting both human and environmental health. Today, most of us in developed countries do not think twice about where our “waste” goes once we flush the toilet, thanks to the development of municipal sanitation systems by which large cities are able to flourish without devastating disease outbreaks. While effective sanitation systems can help maintain human and environmental health, places like Haiti still lack these improvements.
Haiti, forced to pay an international debt in the 1800s in exchange for its liberty, is a country that lacks infrastructural development, particularly with regards to sanitation systems: toilets, wastewater treatment plants, and sewer networks. Furthermore, the implementation of completely new water-borne waste treatment systems is either many decades from reality, or just not realistic due to financial constraints and political turmoil. This means that today only 26.1% of Haiti’s population has access to improved sanitation. Most of the waste from these toilets ends up in the environment untreated; pipes carrying the feces lead to leaking septic tanks or lined pits, that when full, are emptied of their contents in the nearest ravine, river, or ocean. When one gram of feces can contain millions of viruses, bacteria, and parasite eggs, it’s unsurprising that Haiti is currently battling the largest and most virulent cholera outbreak in recent global history.
In places like Haiti where there are few flushing toilets and no municipal waste treatment options, the impacts of sanitation system solutions are enormous. One such solution developed by the US 501c3 non-profit organization Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), challenges our concept of “waste” by redefining it as a “resource.” SOIL employs a method called Ecological Sanitation (EcoSan), whereby human waste is effectively collected, treated, and reused for agricultural production. SOIL built its first EcoSan toilet in Haiti in 2006, the first full waste treatment facility in the entire country in 2009, and has since become a key innovator in the field of sustainable sanitation. The SOIL toilets do not use water to function, and thousands of gallons of human waste that would otherwise end up untreated are instead composted. Furthermore, SOIL operates under World Health Organization (WHO) standards to control thermophilic composting conditions, a process that eliminates disease-causing pathogens like cholera.
Social justice and liberation ecology is at the heart of SOIL’s work; the organization believes that every person has the right to clean and dignified sanitation. At SOIL, waste is not only transformed into nutrient-rich compost, but human lives are valued despite marginalized and oppressed circumstances. SOIL works to engage as many stakeholders as possible, and is also developing social business pilots so that the small monthly fee collected from toilet users ensures that SOIL’s work is financially sustainable. While SOIL’s work on a small-scale providing 2,500 people with access to a household toilet is already making significant public and environmental health strides, SOIL’s intention to increase the scope of its operations will make an even bigger impact. With conscious effort, this work will decrease the disease potential of human waste by transforming it into a resource for rebuilding Haiti’s degraded agricultural lands.
As we continue to look for solutions to sanitation in developing countries, we can look at some already-existing large-scale EcoSan operations and initiatives. For example, southern California’s Inland Empire Regional Composting Authority (IERCA) is the largest indoor biosolids composting facility in the US, producing compost from municipal biosolids and yard trimmings. Although these toilets still function with a water-born waste treatment system, biosolids that would otherwise end up in a landfill are turned into a value-added product for agricultural reuse. In Europe and Australia, the company Natural Event contracts with music festivals to provide EcoSan toilets for events that not only turn feces into compost, but provide a pleasant atmosphere with music, books, and trivia for waiting people in line so that users can enjoy their experience. Similar themes run across EcoSan organizations– dignity, transformation, and growth – and these principles truly drive the success of SOIL’s progress in a resource-poor context like that of Haiti.
Appropriate development of sanitation systems in places like Haiti is multi-faceted. SOIL has proved to be successful not only through leading by its main principles, but in other ways such as being culturally fluent where 90% of its staff are Haitian and 100% of staff speak Haitian Creole, sourcing materials and labor locally, and valuing local expertise in the toilet design and construction process. Through these efforts, SOIL is simultaneously tackling the difficult issues of improving public health, increasing agricultural productivity, mitigating environmental degradation, and providing affordable sanitation. With SOIL as an example of a thoughtful and collaborative initiative, surely we will see over the coming years more innovative ways to recycle waste to commensurately decrease the number of people without access to a toilet.
Monika Roy served for 2 years as the Project Coordinator for SOIL in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti.
Photos by Monika Roy and SOIL.