Traditional ecological sanitation system under pressure
KABUL, 12 August 2007 (IRIN) - Traditional dry vault toilet systems
have been around for centuries in Central Asia and parts of China where
nutrients for agriculture are scarce. However, some analysts say they are
inappropriate for urban areas, as they pose a threat to public health.
Most urban households in Afghanistan use specially-shaped dry vault
toilets which collect solid and liquid waste separately.
Dry vault toilets can be safe and they provide a ready-made fertiliser
for urban agriculture, supporters say.
When Kabul was a small town, sanitation experts say, it was feasible
and safe for donkey carts to carry excrement out of town for use as
fertiliser. However, rapid urbanisation is putting this traditional
practice into question.
Dry vault systems catch and store solid waste in a separate chamber
from urine and are sometimes referred to as "ecological sanitation"
systems - and have significant advantages in some situations, a sanitation
analyst working on the issue told IRIN. The "night soil" in the dry vault
can be removed and carried away and used as fertiliser.
Sanitation consultant Barbara Evans said that the alternatives, flush
toilets connected to a piped sewage system, or pit or soakaway latrines
had their own problems.
"Sewered sanitation is very costly to build and prohibitive to run
because of lack of water and power... This provides flush toilets for
development agency staff, government offices, etc, but I am not sure that
it's an option for the whole city - it's just too costly," Evans told IRIN.
Pit latrines and septic tanks also fill up and their contents have to
be disposed of, while pit latrines can seep into groundwater,
contaminating wells, especially where the water table is close to the
surface and where soils are sandy.
"I believe that you have to make appropriate use of technology and so
far no one has shown me a more appropriate option than dry vaults for many
parts of Kabul," Evans said.
Adapting traditional ecological sanitation is among the approaches that
donors and aid agencies support.
According to Abdul Karim Mirzazada, country representative for the
German aid organisation, German Agro Action, different kinds of projects
have been implemented in Kabul, Kunduz and Takhar provinces.
One project uses water to flush faeces either to a septic covered vault
(on sandy ground) or to an absorbing latrine. In another project, people
defecate into a dry vault which can be emptied.
Evans said: "These days some donors are actively promoting variations
on these types of latrines - commonly clustered together under the term
'ecological sanitation' to capture the idea that waste products are not
wasted and do not pollute the downstream ecosystem but are kept 'in the
loop' at the local level. They aren't common [internationally] and they're
not always appropriate but for many people living in Kabul they are
totally familiar and normal."
Urban sanitation needs
There are only 36 public toilets in Kabul, which has a population of
over four million, according to Kabul Municipality.
Many resort to defecating and urinating in public places, including the
River Kabul in the heart of the city, now dry due to a prolonged drought.
"We believe there is an urgent need for a thorough modernisation of
private and public toilet systems in Kabul," said Mohammad Yaseen Hilal,
deputy director for policy and coordination in Kabul municipality.
Given the widespread use of underground water for all purposes in Kabul
- where only a small fraction of houses have tap water - the municipality
has warned that if all houses used septic and/or absorbing latrines that
would "undoubtedly contaminate sources of water".
"An ideal solution for our toilet crisis is the establishment of a
public sewage recycling system or several fragmented systems," said Hilal,
but doubted his impoverished country could afford the systems in the
Some blame dry toilets for foul smells in Kabul's dusty streets and for
contributing to the spread of disease.
"Up to 70 percent of patients who visit hospitals for diseases such as
diarrhoea are affected by unhygienic toilet facilities," said Abdullah
Fahim, spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Public Health.
Attaullah Ehsan, a doctor at a public hospital for infectious diseases
in Kabul, said 100-150 children visit the hospital each day complaining of
"Children are particularly vulnerable to parasites found in human
excrement," Ehsan said, adding that sources of risk were excrement around
outside toilets, and particles of dried excreta blown around by the wind.
Another risk was flooding which often caused contamination of water
System under strain
For dry vault systems to work, the waste needs to be handled carefully
but most importantly, there needs to be a market for the waste and
resultant fertilizer. That market may now be shrinking.
A 2005 study by authors from the University of Loughborough in the UK
and Action contre la Faim stated that farmers with land on the outskirts
of the city were selling up (at high prices) as the city expanded and so
no longer needed to buy fertiliser.
The report also said the main challenge for aid agencies and government
was what to do about the estimated 60 percent of the population living in
unplanned shanty towns, adding that donor focus on rural areas contributed
to growing inequalities in the city in terms of sanitation.
Evans said: "I would tend to ask those people who say the city is too
big [for dry vault systems] to consider what the alternatives are. Few
major cities with the growth and poverty profile of Kabul do a good job of
designing sanitation which works for the poor - they tend to spend money
on expensive infrastructure that at best provides a high level of service
for a tiny minority of the city - usually the elite.
"Kabul has a system which used to work - we should not abandon it
unless we really have a better option to suggest that is cheap and simple
enough to put in place rapidly."
Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a
project the Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and
information service, but may not necessarily reflect
the views of the United Nations or its agencies.