Stanford Magazine: Cleaner and Greener

By Theresa Johnston, Stanford Magazine, September/October 2011

How poor is Haiti? Picture a country of more than 10 million people without a single sewage treatment plant. The closest thing they have is an open unlined pit at the Port-au-Prince city dump. Each day about 50 tanker trucks pull up to the stinking crater, ditch their loads of human excrement and drive away.

Traveling in Haiti as a doctoral student, Sasha Kramer found the sanitation so appalling that she considered abandoning her Stanford ecology studies to focus on development projects. “In my last two years of graduate school I went to Haiti 12 times,” she told a recent Stanford audience. “My dissertation committee was panicked.”

Kramer finished her doctorate in 2006, then went straight back to Haiti. She and engineer Sarah Brownell co-founded a small nonprofit organization called SOIL, for Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods. Working with Oxfam, the group has constructed more than 200 environmentally friendly toilets in camps around Port-au-Prince, serving nearly 20,000 homeless quake survivors. They’ve also built a composting facility that converts 5,000 gallons of human waste each week into nutrient-rich soil, something the deforested countryside desperately needs. “The first toilet that they built was in the camp where I was living,” says Jimmy Louis, a member of the Park Izmery camp committee. “We like SOIL’s toilets because they take something that can make us sick—human wastes—and transform it into something that can help the country.”

Kramer readily admits this calling isn’t glamorous. “Working with poop in Haiti is not something I ever would have predicted early in my academic career.” A soft-spoken doctor’s daughter who grew up in rural upstate New York, she initially wanted to be a physician. As an undergraduate at Reed College, she was a self-described “radical environmentalist” who thought people should get out of the way. It wasn’t until her graduate work at Stanford that she began to explore the links between environmental issues and human rights.

Nicholas D. Kristof, the Pulitzer-winning New York Times writer, has spent time with Kramer. “Lots of aid workers stay in their own little world, but she was completely integrated in Haitian life,” he marvels. While Haitians “seemed a little puzzled about what Sasha was doing in their midst,” mostly they were “in love with her and thrilled that she was there. Maybe it helps that she’s not leading seminars about aid effectiveness, but trying to get kids to poop in a toilet rather than on a riverbank. That’s the kind of thing that leads to pretty direct conversations, and Sasha had them —in fluent Creole.”

In SOIL’s composting toilets, urine is diverted into one receptacle while solids land in a separate 15-gallon drum. Users sprinkle sugar cane mulch into the drum after each use to cut the stench and deter flies. A “poopmobile” collects all the drums once a week and takes them to the composting facility, which has been engineered to avoid contaminating local streams and groundwater. After six months of composting, the soil is pathogen-free and ready for farm use.

Kramer, who also serves as an adjunct professor of international studies at the University of Miami, says the next step for SOIL will be to shift away from emergency relief efforts and install composting toilets in private homes. Residents would pay a small fee for the poopmobile service—say, $2.50 per month—and the operation would be subsidized by the sale of compost. Her plans were boosted earlier this year when she was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and received $10,000 in support of her work.

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