On the edges of the Bolivian city of El Alto, many people have no sewer service. Some households have an outhouse with a latrine, but for many the closest river is the bathroom—and those rivers flow to Lake Titicaca.
As the area in the lake’s watershed experiences one of the sharpest population increases in the Andean region, water contamination from growing cities becomes more acute with each passing year. A major problem is untreated sewage that flows into the lake. Not only does it pose a serious health risk to humans, it also leads to excess plant growth on the surface of the lake in shallow shore areas. Duckweed, in particular, begins a feeding bonanza and grows in a thick mat on the lake’s surface, sucking up oxygen, blocking sunlight and choking off aquatic life.
Many residents of El Alto are poor migrants from the sparsely populated countryside, and as new urban residents they continue the same habits that were common in their rural communities. But in a city of over one million people, such as El Alto, health, safety and environmental concerns are exponentially higher.
Enter Sumaj Huasi, a non-profit organization that helps people without sewer service build ecological toilets. These toilets capture feces and urine in separate containers, which Sumaj Huasi picks up when they are full and takes to a compost facility.
Isabel Condori lives in El Alto with her husband and young son. Her family recently completed construction of their ecological toilet, which she says not only improves their health and comfort, but their safety.
“Before one had to look around the river for empty places, behind walls. We women we were afraid, but it was the only option because most people didn’t have bathrooms and had to go to the river,” she said. “Now with the bathroom it’s safer and easier.”
The bathrooms sit close by a family’s house in a separate building. Inside is a small area for an electric shower, and on an elevated platform sits a toilet with a front section to collect urine, which is piped to a container outside the building, and a receptacle below for feces. The toilet doesn’t smell because ash or wood chips are sprinkled into the receptacle after every use.
Sumaj Huasi works with each family to make the bathrooms their own—many include decorative tiles and the window is covered with homemade curtains.
For Sumaj Huasi the project has proven more popular in urbanized areas than rural areas, perhaps because the city dwellers are seeking safety and privacy, which are not such pressing issues in the countryside. Integrating an ecological toilet into the daily life of an urban household is a process that requires strong collaboration between Sumaj Huasi and the communities it works with. Recipients of the bathrooms supply a portion of the building materials, while Sumaj Huasi supplies the rest, conducts workshops and works with engineers and masons to ensure the bathrooms are built correctly.
Paola Montes is a student in social work who collaborates with families who want to build ecological toilets.
“It’s not common for people to have these types of bathrooms, so it takes work to make them a part of everyday life,” she says. “Interaction with people is so important to reach change and empower them. In this area people go to the river to take care of their necessities, and sometimes they aren’t close to the river and have to walk far at night. They also bathe in the open air, and when it’s cold in El Alto it causes sickness. Plus going to the river, with all that garbage, makes people sick.”
El Alto’s rivers are rife with human and industrial waste. Feces in the open air raise the risk that intestinal parasites and other infections will be passed between people, and those infections can be particularly dangerous for young children. According to UNICEF, 30,000 children in Bolivia die each year from diarrhea. In addition, parasites sap energy and nutrients that cannot be spared in a country with a high incidence of malnutrition in children.
Sumaj Huasi takes the waste it collects to its composting facility on the edge of the city. Because of the danger of parasites in human waste, the composting process takes time and must be adjusted to different environments. The organization is working toward compost that can be used on a large scale on plants intended for human consumption.
In a spacious greenhouse where Sumaj Huasi tests its product, program director Alfredo Terrazas Vargas points out thick, leafy potato leaves, lush basil plants, plump cucumbers and beautiful flowers all growing in what was once human feces. Urine, which is also rich in nitrogen, is mixed with water and used as a fertilizer.
There are questions about the sustainability of ecological toilets in El Alto. A big “if” rests on whether the sale of compost can make the project self-sustaining, or if it will always need to be subsidized. If sales take off, private companies may want to take over collecting the waste, composting it and then selling it.
Another question is whether people will continue to use the toilets once sewer service reaches their homes. It could be advantageous for residents’ health and the environment to continue because those sewers might not carry wastewater to a sewage treatment plant—and it could end up piped directly into El Alto’s rivers.