Are Bio-Latrines Right for Haiti?
On the outskirts of Les Cayes several years ago, I came across a school with a bio-latrine that used airless digestion to transform human waste into gas suitable for cooking, heating and lighting. After one month, there was enough gas being produced to cook a meal for all of the students in this fairly large school, without using environmentally destructive wood charcoal. The gas is without odor and, beyond the initial investment, without cost. The experiences of other low resource countries might hold lessons for the potential scale up of this innovation in Haiti.
Most of the lessons learned I found came from Kenya. By way of background, the sanitation situation in Kenya’s slums is very poor. In Kibera, Kenya's largest, the predominant method of waste disposal is ‘flying toilets’, which are plastic bags filled with waste, thrown into the streets, ditches, back alleys, etc. Given the size of the population, the implications for public health are serious, especially in the rainy season. The first bio-latrine was constructed in Kibera in 2006, through a partnership between local groups and the Halcrow Foundation.
To learn more about how a bio latrines is constructed, take a look at this introductory video by Halcrow Foundation. The Government of Kenya and other groups like Practical Action have also become involved in implementing bio-latrines. In another piece about bio latrines in Kenya, Peter Gachanja, who works for Ushirika wa Maisha na Maendeleo (Life and Development Cooperative), states "When people use charcoal, they waste a lot of time trying to generate heat. If you have more time, you have more time to work and earn money." In Kenya as in Haiti, the burden of cooking falls upon women and young girls. According to the article, energy harnessed from the bio-latrine, among other bio-fuel facilities, can lower reliance on firewood, charcoal and grid power, which is unreliable in many African cities and increasingly hard to come by in rural areas.
Mercy Corps stated it would build low cost bio latrines for the internally displaced in Popayán, the capital of the Cauca Department southwestern Colombia. The work is to be implemented in partnership with APROTEC, a local Colombian non-governmental organization specialising in renewable energy. According to Mercy Corps, each biogas digestor latrine costs $650 to construct, which is the lowest cost I have seen cited so far.
The Energy Foundation built a biogas latrine on the campus of the University College of Education in Winneba, Ghana. The latrine has been erected next to the teaching practice school on the campus. The facility has been financed by the German Embassy in Accra through its Small Grants Program. Design and construction were done by UNIRECO Ltd., Accra.
In Rwanda, a biogas latrine is powering a major prison. Doing so has reduced by 60 percent the annual wood-fuel costs which would otherwise reach near $1 million. The Rwandan prison biogas facilities received an Ashden Award for sustainable energy. The award comess with a prize of $50,000 given by the Ashden Trust, a British charity that promotes green technologies. Prior to the construction of biogas facilities, human waste was being thrown down the hill, near Lake Kivu.
In Haiti, the main organization involved in promoting biogas technology is AIDG. AIDG plans to construct a municipal biogas plant for waste treatment in Cap-Haitien and is partnering with SOIL to set up a municipal compost site that will process solid waste from full composting latrines as well as effluent from the biogas plant. According to AIDG, several agro-businesses in and around Cap Haitien have already been identified that would be interested in purchasing fertilizer once production begins and safety of the compost has been demonstrated. The local government in Milot has offered 60 acres of government land to be dedicated for these projects pending national approval.
There are a number of challenges. First is the cost. Larger models, such as those appropriate for slum use can potentially cost $250,000. Even then the capacity is limited to about 1,000 uses a day. In a large slum, a whole series of bio-latrines would need to be strategically constructed. Numerous organizations noted that while maintenance is not as pricey as an ordinary toilet, it involves ensuring there is enough moisture in the bio-digester to keep producing gas and it can break down if there isn't. Members of the Afrigadget Community, a website devoted to creative problem solving in Africa (but every bit as relevant to Haiti) noted it is hard to invest in building structures like this if there’s uncertainty about whether the “legitimate” property owner will order the structure bulldozed.
Community involvement is key. In all the examples from Kenya community groups were involved in the design, implementation, and maintenance of the latrines. Land ownership issues should be resolved prior. Ongoing maintenance is needed to keep the bio latrine functioning. The Kenyan government was not involved with the first bio latrine, but became involved once its value was demonstrated. Likewise, Haiti's government might be enticed to participate once a pilot is proved succesful. Finally, markets needs to be developed for the usage of gas and fertilizer.
So could it work in Haiti? We already know it can work for schools. I hope that it could also be applied in urban sites. Doing so would take coordination between organizations with the know how like AIDG, community groups, and the government. Given that sanitation in Haiti is poor and charcoal use is both expensive and quite literally parching the environment, there could be a place for bio-latrines - but unless they are part of a broader environmental strategy, the national impact will be limited. But as a resident of Kibera noted, "We have so many challenges here. Every bit helps."
If you've come across bio-latrines in Haiti or elsewhere, we welcome your thoughts on their potential. Thanks!