Are Flush Toilets Appropriate in Third World Countries?

Flush toilets
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At the edge of the Yasuni Forest of Amazonia, the Anangu Kichwa have a community center with a school and meeting area. They don't live here; the Kichwa like waterfront property and have their homes streched along the Napo river, which feeds the Amazon. They have no running water, no electricity and no sewage system, but they do have a line of western style flush toilets. This is odd; in the first world, dependable water supplies came first, then the toilet evolved to take advantage of the water supply, and then the sewer was invented to cope with the explosion in contaminated water. Water flush toilets were a response to available infrastructure and there is no chicken/egg question; infrastructure came before toilets. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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But deep in the rainforest there is no central plumbing supply, and there are no sewers. In order to use their fancy government-supplied toilets, they had to drag water half a kilometer from the Napo River (one of the sources of the Amazon) and flush it into a cesspool in the back forty behind the toilets. The Anangu are no dopes and quickly realized the silliness of this, and shut them down in favour of "eco-toilets"- these well ventilated, raised, two-chamber outhouses where they can squat like they always have, don't need to carry water and only have to muck out twice a year. It is a lesson that appears to be lost on the rest of Ecuador. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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Whether you are high in the Andes, at a hiking trail in the Galapagos, deep in the Amazon or even beside the poorest farmer's house, one finds western style flush toilets. This makes some sense in tourist areas; most tourists hate outhouses. But the government thinks that flush toilets are the ne plus ultra of western civilization and are spending vast amounts of money to put them everywhere, from the poorest dirt farm to the oddest out-of-the way hiking trail. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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In Amazonia, they are these standard windowless concrete block western bathrooms with toilet, sink and shower, the standard 5x7 compact bathroom arrangement that developed in America as a response to plumbing expediency rather than any reference to health, comfort or sensibility. Juan's house in Pompeya is wood, with huge openings to maximise natural ventilation and light; his little toilet is dark and the only ventilation is an opening over the door. Beside it there is a concrete tower with a blue plastic tank on top. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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I ask him where the waste goes, and he tells me that they put in sewers and it goes to a waste treatment plant by the river. I ask if they put in central water as well, and he says yes, they did, but it doesn't work because there is no electricity to run the pumps. I note that there are electric wires and poles everywhere, and he tells me that they are owned by the oil company, which is arguing with the government over the cost of electricity, so they won't turn it on. One can imagine the effectiveness of a sewage treatment plant without electricity; it is probably dumping whatever comes down the pipe right into the river. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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Santos Encarnación Campverdo is a Rainforest Alliance certified cacao farmer who is going organic. He and his wife know how to breed and graft to create better cacao plants; they make fertilizer from compost and chickenshit and keep the bugs down with chilis and other natural techniques. They have separate organic composting, inorganic disposal and follow the best management practices of the Rainforest Alliance. They run a very sophisticated operation. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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I asked Mrs. Campverdo how the toilet works; she says they have a diesel generator that runs the pumps that fills the cistern at the top of the pole. She said that she thinks the waste goes into something under that concrete lid over there, and that in a few years the government will come back and move the lid. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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Here is a family that knows more about plant breeding than Mendel Gregor, and they have no idea of how their toilet works. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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And the crazy part of it is, they could use the phosphorus if they collected their urine; That is what they are starting to do in Sweden in the face of peak phosphorus. Urine separating toilets are quite common, and they even sell a separating and composting unit. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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Or they could compost their poop into pretty good fertilizer as well. It isn't like they are living on a diet of antibiotics and birth control pills, it is going to be pretty pure output. That is what they are doing in the most sophisticated green buildings. Clivus Multrum makes a fairly simple model called their "Trailhead" that could easily be installed instead of the little blue buildings. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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It is the same story almost everywhere I go; high in the Andes at a llama lodge near Mt. Chimborazo, one has to dump a pail of water into the toilet because the electricity is off. At the start of a trail to the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela Island, they somehow installed a flush toilet. I see a pump for the water but no connection, and tried to figure out where the waste went, but could not. This is not a busy place, probably one of the least visited sites in the Galapagos, but they have this convenience. Outside Canada's Algonquin Park, which gets probably a hundred times as many people, they have outhouses or composters. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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Flush toilets are nice. But they are a 19th century technology that is a prodigious waste of resources, taking potable water and turning it into a waste product, needing an elaborate treatment system to deal with the waste properly, electricity to run the pumps and diesel fuel to make the electricity. And that doesn't even account for the loss of a useful resource in the waste that is flushed away. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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If the nation of Ecuador wants to improve the lot of its citizens, they should look at 21st century technology instead, that separates and reuses this resource, that doesn't require the pretense of a supporting infrastructure, and that makes people sit on a toilet, which is proven to be less healthy and effective than squatting. They have taken the absolute worst-designed idea in western culture and are trying to apply it to third world farmers. It is nuts. Credit: Lloyd Alter