From toilet to table – sanitation solutions that help feed the rural poor

Published: 21 March 2012 16:49 CET

By Patrick Fuller

Human waste, water scarcity and food production might not seem to be mutually compatible, yet, in southern China the Red Cross has been supporting a sanitation programme with a difference that is taking an environmentally-friendly approach towards improving the health of the local population while also boosting food security in some of the poorest areas of the country.

One of the major global challenges faced by organisations working in the water and sanitation sector is the combined impact of water scarcity, pollution, poor sanitation, food insecurity and urban growth on vulnerable populations. The rapid pace of development in China has led to a changing landscape where the majority of available water supply is channelled to commercial agricultural production and also to meet the needs of the countries expanding cities.

Water scarcity and dependence on chemical fertilisers to increase crop yields has left farmers in rural communities with denuded soil and a polluted environment. But thanks to an international group of planners, architects, engineers, ecologists, biologists, agronomists and social scientists, a holistic approach to sanitation has been developed that saves water, is non-polluting and returns nutrients to the soil.

Ecological sanitation (EcoSan) is based on the concept of ‘sanitise and recycle’. Unlike flush toilets, EcoSan toilets do not rely upon water. Instead, waste is stored and reused when free from microorganisms and the resulting compost is used to fertilise local crops. There is a growing awareness among the population that increasing the production of food can be achieved through sustainable agriculture that isn’t wholly reliant upon non-renewable resources such as chemical fertilisers.

Household sanitation systems based on ecological principles are traditional practices in many countries and the Red Cross has been supporting such projects to improve health and hygiene in a number of countries that include Vietnam, Philippines, Afghanistan, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Sri Lanka. The concept of EcoSan toilets is particularly well adapted to the Chinese culture.

Kathryn Clarkson, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ water and sanitation coordinator for Asia Pacific recently returned from a visit to Guilin, where over a four year period, the Red Cross Society of China has helped to install EcoSan toilets in a number of villages.

 “Unlike some other cultures, in China it is not seen as undesirable to use human waste to fertilise the soil. It’s a pragmatic solution to a growing problem,” she says. “The world reserve of phosphate is rapidly diminishing, and EcoSan toilets are an ecological way of disposing of human waste in the world’s most populated country.”

In the hamlet of Xiaoqingshan, almost every one of the 350 homes now has an EcoSan toilet, thanks to the Red Cross programme. The installation of the toilets combined with health education activities and improved water supply has led to a marked improvement in household hygiene practices.
“Before the project, open defecation in the surrounding fields was normal. Now this practise has stopped and there has been a marked improvement in people’s health. There are less flies and mosquitoes and there has been a 30% reduction in diarrhoeal diseases in the last few years,” says Clarkson.

Local villagers are also able to put more food on the table. Zhijun Deng, the village headman has seen the results of the fertiliser from his EcoSan toilet. Pointing to a field of leafy cabbages he says: “I’m saving money not having to buy fertiliser, I get a better yield and the vegetables are actually a lot tastier.”

Liu Hao is not only using compost produced by his own household, he is also purchasing it from other homes in the community.  Some farmers calculated that cost savings per year of commercial fertilizer were the equivalent of USD 90 per 1,000 square metres.

These savings become even more important at the community level, especially when farmers are struggling to make a living. A city of 100,000 people would produce about 500,000kg of potential eco fertilizer per year.