SOIL Returns to Its Roots

SOIL Explores the World’s Largest EcoSan Project and Reunites with Heroes

Co-written by Sasha Kramer and Anthony Kilbride

See all the photos from South Africa on SOIL’s Flickr page.

Sasha: SOIL Returns to It’s Roots

Seven years ago, in a country more than 7000 miles from Haiti the seeds that would later become SOIL were carefully collected.

I had first visited South Africa in 2005 before starting SOIL and it was that visit that inspired my passion for ecological sanitation.  During that first visit I attended an ecological sanitation conference in Durban where I had the honor of meeting some of the leaders in the field of converting waste into resources.  I met Ron Sawyer, who has worked on ecological sanitation in Mexico for decades and currently serves on the SOIL advisory board.  Ron was able to visit us in Haiti just after the earthquake and provided tremendous assistance in getting our emergency sanitation project up and running.  I met Amah Klutse, who was working with CREPA at the time and inspired our visit to Ougadougu earlier in our trip. I met Richard Holden, who has worked with various NGO’s and the South African government for many years and is a brilliant sanitation aficionado.  And I met Peter Morgan, my hero even before we met, one of the father’s of the modern day EcoSan movement, and my inspiration (more to come about Peter in this article).

After six years of trial and error in Haiti, six years of tremendous learning and growth, it was time to return to South Africa to share our experiences with those who played such a large role in the evolution of SOIL and to learn from some of our earliest teachers.

Anthony: Our South African Story

On the way back from Ouagadougou on the 4th of May, the SOIL team split into two: Bobo continued back to Kalale to continue his work with the women of Bessassi and Dunkassa, and Sasha and Anthony continued south to Cotonou, and then on to South Africa. We stayed in South Africa from the 7th of May to the 15th of May.

After an extended 5-day voyage from Cotonou (courtesy of Kenyan Airways “The Pride Of Africa”) we arrived in the city of Durban to kick off the South African leg of our toilet tour just in time for a meeting with Neil McCleod, Head of the Water and Sanitation Unit for the eThekwini municipality (of which Durban City is a part) on Wednesday the 9th of May.

The eThekwini Water & Sanitation Unit, or “EWS”, are known to many in the field of Ecological Sanitation. In  2003, EWS commenced possibly the largest ever UDT (Urine Diversion Toilet) project in rural and peri- urban settings in eThikwini. We learned from various sources before our trip that EWS had already constructed “75,000 UDTs in 65 peri- urban and rural areas of eThekwini municipality, serving approximately 450,000 people in total”. This was of particular interest to us not only because of our interest in the technology, but also because of the ever-increasing numbers of EcoSan projects, large and small, popping up all over Haiti. We had pay EWS a visit and learn about this huge EcoSan project, the scale of which could be coming to Haiti in the not too distant future.

Just another stop on the toilet tour...

We caught Neil just after his trip to the WISA 2012 (Water Institute of Southern Africa) conference in Cape Town, where the water and sanitation professional network of South Africa had converged. We cursed our timing (this time no fault of any airline) but in the end the South Africa leg of the toilet tour would prove as revelatory as our trip to the Kalale latrine with the Women of Dunkassa:

Neil McCleod started by giving us a brief history of the development of the EWS service. The backdrop to all water and sanitation discussion in South Africa is the fact that basic services are free for poor households; a rights-based approach to sanitation which is enshrined in the post-apartheid constitution. Such an approach is an exception in today’s world, but it is one that rings true with Haiti, where many water and sanitation services are still provided for free by NGO’s. We learned that Ethekwini had twice expanded its borders, in 1996 and again in 2001, and that with this expansion came a rapid increase in the number of households who needed access to water and sanitation. Immediately we had a sense of the challenges and complexities of providing sanitation services in eThekwini, but also a sense of excitement at the opportunities for developing new and innovative solutions to the problems.

Neil then gave us an overview of the grand plan for sanitation in eThekwini, which included an impressive array of solutions including; 75,000 new UDTs; 3,500 pit latrines emptied; over 300 new public toilet blocks built in informal settlements providing free sanitation; a latrine sludge treatment and processing machine which produced fertilizer pellets; recovery of nutrients from urine; and decentralized wastewater treatment using anaerobic biological digestion, the so-called DEWATS. We were stunned by the work being undertaken by EWS, but also confused as to which projects were proven to be appropriate and sustainable, and which were still being researched and tested. Neil explained the importance of the collaboration between EWS and the Pollution Research Group (PRG) at the University of KwaZuluNatal (UKZN), which allowed EWS access to quality researchers to test the feasibility of their innovations, and gave the PRG specific problems and research money with which to attract students and expand their research base: “a win-win situation”.

The conversation turned from waste treatment to the toilet, and the interest stimulated by the Bill & Melinda Gates ‘Reinvent the toilet challenge’. Neil stated that the dominant toilet interface to which most users aspire had not changed since Queen Victoria installed a watercloset in 1860, and that a rethinking to the traditional flush toilet was required in order to meet the sanitation challenges of the future. We would hear and discuss more of the Gates toilet challenge during the rest of our time in South Africa, and certainly this will be a hot topic in the sanitation world for the next few years. We bid farewell to Neil McCleod as we discussed faecophobic toilet coatings and enzyme eating poop and other space-age ideas to revolutionize the toilet.

The day after our meeting with Neil McCleod of the EWS, we met with staff and students from the University of KwaZuluNatal (UKZN); the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) in the School of Development Studies, and the Pollution Research Group (PRG) in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

First we met with Dr. Shauna Mottiar of the CCS who introduced us and facilitated a two hour seminar on ecological sanitation, and a discussion which honed in on some of the social issues surrounding the EWS UDT project. Sasha presented SOIL’s work in Haiti and then we fielded questions from the students and researchers in attendance. The first question was excellent, and summed up the voices of dissent from the South African social activism community who were opposed to the EWS UDT project: “How do you marry dignity with cleaning out your own poop from your toilet?”. We were yet to learn about the details of the EWS project, but it seemed that the maintenance and operation of the UDTs, which included emptying the chambers of their poop, was the responsibility of the households themselves. This was different to SOIL’s operations in Haiti, where all emptying of poop from the SOIL EcoSan toilets was done by SOIL staff, who are given training and protective equipment. Indeed without great knowledge of the EWS UDT project operation it was hard for us to comment on the social complexities of that project, but we repeated what we always do when discussing the social marketing of our toilets; that encouraging toilet use is a slow participative process, and communities need to be approached with a great deal of respect. The seminar gave us enough of an impression that the UDT project was not completely accepted by all households, and that we still had questions to ask of EWS concerning the level of participation of the communities in selecting the Urine Diversion Toilet.

Next we met with Chris Brouckaert of the PRG who showed us around the laboratory and explained some of the research that had been undertaken in collaboration with EWS. We saw the Struvite reactor which extracted phosphorus from urine, and also some component parts of a new Nitrogen extracting reactor. Chris and some of the PRG students explained the broad range of research that had been undertaken for EWS; including some very Haiti- relevant research on the removal and treatment of pit latrine sludge. We were impressed at both the quality and quantity of the research, but also the level of collaboration with EWS. Such a research agenda between academia and the government is sorely needed in Haiti, so that we may not lose the wealth of knowledge that has been amassed in the WASH sector since the 2010 earthquake, and capitalize on lessons learned.

Anthony geeks out over Struvite in a jar - super phosphorous!

On Thursday the 11th May we were once again hosted by EWS, this time by Teddy Gounden and Lucky Sibaya who showed us 3 project sites in the eThekwini area; a household UDT and household water supply tank; the ‘poop pelitizer’; and a DEWATS plant at Newlands-Mashu. From Teddy we learned more details about the UDT project; including the fact that composting and re-use of the faeces from the UDTs had been largely omitted from the educational component of the project. EWS’s approach was to get the toilets working first, and then think about the treatment and re-use. This was in contrast to the SOIL method which uses the re-use of human waste as the key to promote responsible use of the toilets. Indeed, no SOIL training is ever undertaken without a compost sample on hand with which to say; “Here, smell this – this used to be poop”. Teddy also gave us a greater understanding of the social issues surrounding the rights-based approach to providing sanitation services in the new democratic South Africa. Again we were struck by the interesting comparison between Durban and Port-au-Prince, e.g. very similar in terms of demographics and social challenges, but completely different in terms of government capacity in the field of sanitation and pricing of sanitation services. Teddy explained that the results of monitoring & evaluation of the 75,000 UDTs would be published later in 2012; the EcoSan community around the world and in Haiti waits with great curiosity to read about the fortunes of this landmark project. We thought about how the technologies being tested in Durban could also be useful to Port-au-Prince. Could the dense network of septic tanks be replaced by decentralized wastewater treatment plants? Could we learn from South Africa’s experiences in order to guide urban planning after the earthquake, or reduce the impact of cholera by containing and treating contaminated water during the rainy season? As ever, we left with more questions than answers, but we were superbly guided by Teddy and Lucky and we promised to roll out the red carpet for them should they ever wish to see the sanitation landscape in Haiti.

These are just what they look like - poop pellets!

On our last full day in Durban we met Professor Chris Buckley, head of the PRG at the University of KZN. We also met Chris’s colleagues Ruth Cottingham and Konstantina Velkushanova who were researching, amongst other things, “the viscosity of pit latrine sludge”. As the afternoon sun shone on the surfers and sharks harmoniously sharing the water off the Durban shore, we sipped cold castle beer on the beach and talked about latrine emptying, toilet design, ascaris worms, urine capture, sterilization of faeces, and soil. This was our kind of Saturday afternoon, with our kind of people.

Sasha: Back to the Source of SOIL

We left Durban on Sunday the 13th of May for a 2-day stop in Johannesburg. We were kindly put up by Richard and Isabella Holden, and we had invited a very special guest from Zimbabwe: Peter Morgan.

Richard Holden, Peter Morgan and Sasha pay a visit to Richard Holden's Household EcoSan toilet

Where it was Peter’s gentle and knowledgeable approach to EcoSan that inspired me in 2005, it was Richard’s amazing household EcoSan system which demonstrated to me that it could work. Richard had installed a beautiful urine-diversion toilet in his bathroom in 2001, which looked as good in 2012 as when I first saw it in 2005. The toilet fit inside the bathroom just as a standard flush toilet, the only difference was the cistern of water for flushing away was replaced by a bucket of soil for covering up. The toilet sat above a chamber which collected the poop and the pee. Richard expertly showed us around the toilet and then outside to where the poop and the pee was easily removed from underneath the toilet. We then went back to the front of the house where the compost bin stood neat and clean right before of the front door. Into the brick compost bin Richard emptied the poop, covered it up with compost from the bottom of the bin, and popped the lid back on. The pee is poured approximately 2 times per week on the household compost pile, which includes food and yard wastes. The maintenance of the UD toilet took only 5-minutes and would be repeated twice per week for pee and every 2 weeks for the poo. For over a decade this system has been producing an amazing black compost which nurtures their own garden (and others too) and eliminates the flushing away of treated water after each toilet use. It was this system that inspired SOIL’s current focus on household EcoSan in urban areas.

On our second day in Johannesburg we spent the entire day chatting to Peter and listening to his tales of African life; fascinating first-hand stories about sanitation technologies that are still in use today (like the VIP pit latrine); and about new innovations that were being researched; like the modified Blair latrine and the deep cycle fossa alterna. It was such an honour to be with a man who had spent so much of his life shaping the sanitation landscape, who was still filled with simple and brilliant ideas of new solutions.

Sasha and Peter discuss their love of soil.

To end with a quote from Peter Morgan which embodies why we love him so…

“Ecological sanitation is an ancient practice, the gnomes and the elves have been pooping around the forest for centuries creating beautiful soil.”

With love from South Africa,

Sasha and Anthony.

(and the rift valley gnomes who we picked up on our way to Kenya…stay tuned)

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