Anything but "Waste"

Anything but "Waste"

  • by Architecture for Humanity
  • Apr 24, 2012
  • comments

The FastCompany Co.EXIST blog reminded us recently of Bill Gates' Toilet Challenge: $42 Million in funding for the invention of a new toilet. Their point is that toilets need to be re-thought to overcome a heavy reliance on water and dismissal of human waste as an agricultural and economic resource.

In Haiti, this conversation has reached a point of critical importance. As the country rebuilds, it will face the uphill challenge of prioritizing waste management and introducing inventive, effective and sustainable means of handling waste.

An eco-friendly toilet is certainly feasible there, but after two years of reconstruction discussions, a new model hasn't taken hold. Imagine trying to show people the benefits of a toilet system clearly a departure not only from what they're accustomed to, but also from the Western products of progress. Now imagine needing to create a setting where discussing findings and information could happen without participants and invitees shuddering at the mention of "poop." People still need desensitization to the handling of what comes out of us.

"Sanitation Sally"

Enter Lisa Smyth, a design fellow with Architecture for Humanity in Haiti who became the self-appointed representative of all things Sanitation at the Rebuilding Center. Lisa's spent a lot of time thinking about how to make poop a point of comfortable discussion and the critical facet of reconstruction that it in fact is.

"Take the millenium development goals," Lisa is quick to point out. "You've got loads of people working on clean water, but who's focusing on sanitation?" The smallest fraction of Haiti's reconstruction effort is dedicated to sanitation - and this ratio is not unique to the island nation. "Water is doing quite well, about 70%, and sanitation is still at the bottom. The bad thing about that is you can't have one without the other. If you can't fix the sanitation it's going to continue to contaminate the water."

Recently Lisa's gravitated to the notion of a superhero that can wipe away the bad stigma. While she has no problem talking about poop, relating her superhero idea still gives her giggles.

Sanitation Sally is imagined as a costumed crusader popping up in different parts of Haiti delivering easy-to-comprehend knowledge on composting latrines and the usable/profitable results of waste. Barring magical capabilities, Sally could make YouTube videos of visiting NGOs and communities alike with the information.

"I've even talked with Patricia Arquette about it!"

Arquette runs a sanitation nonprofit in Haiti called GiveLove, which has been working with Architecture for Humanity on several of its projects there. She and Lisa have met several times on best practices for Haiti school sanitation blocks. Sometimes the conversation turns to Sally, her mission and what could realistically be made with small budgets (both money and time), a Flipcam and iMovie.

Sanitation Charrettes

Until Sally goes viral, she'll have to make personal appeals for new toilet concepts. Last September, Architecture for Humanity held a Sanitation Charrette for the new community of Santo. Building from scratch, Santo could adopt one of several techniques being entertained as Haiti's new sanitation system. No system is perfect, each has its ups and downs (ups would include financing, downs would include maintenance, mechanics and cost).

The charrette laid out four models of toilet and "attribute cards" pinned as pros, cons and when they would be implemented on a timeline. The Santo residents were asked to first vote on the systems, a discussion would articulate pluses and minuses, and a second vote would be taken. The systems included:

1. "Thermophilic," or hot composting

2. Enclosed Long-Term

3. Pour-Flush

4. Pit Latrine

Attribute Cards

"Half the people put their sticker on the septic tank option. We were like 'why did you vote for this?'" The charretters thought they'd have water piped to their houses. The facilitators clarified the criteria: "No, you'll have to carry the water from one of the wells." The news prompted everyone to move their vote back to the pit latrine.

"It's the devil you know," Lisa explains.

The "pre-exam" at the beginning of the charrette:

Boards following the info session:

Download the Charrette Report

But that's far from saying the charrette was unproductive, or unsuccessful. "We are still championing compost toilets here and at the recent sanitation charrette in Villa Rosa the participants themselves made enquires about it."

"[The Villa Rosa residents] also said the job of someone making compost would be looked upon differently to a bayakou, as it would seen as a way to make a living. That was interesting." Bayakou is the well-known post of latrine-emptier - not a job that brings with it much pride. In fact, latrines are usually emptied under cover of night. The contents are typically buried somewhere else on the latrine owner's property.

The promise of turning waste into wealth (and making "ti kob") has kicked off the negative associations.

Sh*t Summit

These studies and breakthroughs could have a larger venue than the informal conversations or viral campaigns lent by the topic matter. Lisa and Patricia agree that the sanitation needed some dedicated attention from the network of orgs assisting reconstruction. Perhaps a Poop Summit could finally bring all hands and ideas to the table and make a leap in the coordinated effort to building Haiti's sanitation infrastructure.

Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods, another sanitation non-profit, agrees. "SOIL are actually working quite hard on making an Eco Sanitation Conference happen here." There is promise.

Then just this morning Lisa forwards an invitation, with her preamble: "speak of the devil."

Friends and colleagues,

On behalf of the entire SOIL team, I am pleased to say we have confirmed the dates of the National Sustainable Sanitation Conference here in Port-au-Prince. The conference will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 12th and 13th, 2012. The exact location has yet to be determined.

In the past two years numerous organizations have initiated projects in Haiti involving composting toilets and bio-systems in an effort to transform human wastes into a valuable resource. Given the rising interest in these innovative waste treatment technologies, there is a great need for information sharing among NGOs and the Haitian government and the creation and enforcement of national standards to ensure that public health is protected.

As part of SOIL’s education and outreach activities and with the support of UNICEF, we have organized this event to bring together organizations, community members and government representatives interested in sustainable sanitation initiatives in Haiti.

The conference will include the following activities:

  • Overview of National Sanitation Strategy presented by DINEPA’s Sanitation Office (DA)
  • Presentations of lessons learned from previous projects and ongoing sustainable sanitation projects in Haiti
  • Ateliers focused on different components of sustainable sanitation
  • Stakeholder feedback
  • Open forum to discuss National Standards for Composting Toilets and Biogas
  • Production of a public document summarizing the findings of the conference

"Sanitation Sally should make a guest star lunch time appearance!" Lisa adds.

Paradigm Sh*t

As for the Gates challenge, Lisa's hopeful. The solution needs to be practical, not bound in energy intensive technology, and capable of turning the heads of both 2.6 billion people without resources and the 4.4 billion using more familiar alternatives.

"A dry toilet system is as avant-garde as it can get in terms of us building a sustainable future for the planet." Here's hoping developing countries and influential developed countries can come to this realization together.


Round 2 of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Reinvent the Toilet Challenge opened Monday, April 23.