Women in the World: "Saving Lives with Smart Toilets in Haiti"

Published January 9, 2013 for the Women in the World Foundation.

By Sam Ritholtz

The third anniversary of the cataclysmic Haiti earthquake—a monster that registered 7.0 on the Richter scale, killed 300,000 people and displaced more than 1 million—is coming up on January 12 and with it will come a fresh slew of media stories about the miserable state of Haiti today and its failed reconstruction efforts.

That makes Sasha Kramer mad. “People around the world will be throwing up their hands and saying, ‘Haiti again! Will they ever get their lives together!’’ says Dr. Kramer (pictured above), an ecologist and head of a Port-au-Prince-based nonprofit called SOIL, whose staff is mostly Haitian. “That’s simply not the truth.”

“Haitians have demonstrated a tremendous amount of tolerance and strength to live in the conditions that they are forced to live in,” she says. “It is the courage that I see in everyday people here that makes me love the country so much.”

Her love for Haiti, nurtured during her post-grad days as a volunteer there, led her in 2006 to help create a composting toilet that is cheap and easy to use in areas that don’t have access to city sewage hookups—which is true for most residents of Haiti—and which turns the solid waste into compost. Her toilets were already changing lives when the quake hit—and then SOIL went into overdrive, as the suddenly homeless crowded into makeshift camps that lacked the most rudimentary sanitation services and became potential breeding grounds for diseases like cholera.

At its peak during the crisis, SOIL’s EcoSan toilets provided relief to more than 14,000 people living in Port-au-Prince’s displaced-person camps and to 10,000 residents of communities throughout northern Haiti and in Cap-Haitien. Today the nonprofit serves at least 15,000 Haitians. The SOIL team gathers the waste collected by these toilets and brings it to a compost pile where over the course of nine months it transmogrifies into rich, fertile dirt. This fertilizer is then sold to nearby nurseries and farmers, with profits going back to fund SOIL’s growing operations and team.

Perhaps SOIL’s greatest impact has been on the women of Haiti. “The burden of not having access to sanitation falls most heavily on women,” Dr. Kramer explains. “Women are the ones most responsible for their families and they take on a disproportionate amount of risk when it comes to sanitation.” Indeed, thanks to the composting toilets, women no longer have to worry about disposing of the household’s solid waste and exposing themselves to disease.

In 2013, SOIL will be expanding into sustainable agriculture, including starting a new tree farm. But despite the nonprofit’s achievements so far, funding remains a constant worry. “Building is easy,” Dr. Kramer says with a laugh. “Keeping it going is the issue.”

When asked how Americans can best help Haiti, Dr. Kramer recommended identifying “a small, locally based organization that you can establish a relationship with, because small organizations know the community better and have a much smaller overhead.”

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