Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center
In the arid hills above Addis Ababa a metal gate swings open to reveal a riot of color – on one side a wall of towering passion fruit trees, to the left a lush vegetable garden, and up ahead a thick carpet of lawn and flowering shrubs.
This is the garden of Ethiopian social scientist Almaz Terrefe and her husband Gunder Edstrom, a Swedish engineer with a specialty in composting and sanitation. Call it the garden of urine, the surprising product of an eco-san toilet system that turns their own urine and feces into productive fertilizer – and holds the promise, they believe, of transforming the lives of billions. Edstrom talks about why they chose this particular version of waste management – one that keeps urine and feces separate.
India has seen success with systems that combine both, as in the Sulabh pour-flush toilet system. At the World Water Forum last month in Istanbul David Crosweller of the foundation Wherevertheneed.org made the case for widespread use of eco-san toilets.
Those who consider sanitation the heart of the water/health issue pushed for higher visibility – with mixed success -- at the World Water Forum.
"Once again this was mostly about water and very little about sanitation," said Rose George, the British journalist whose book on sanitation, The Big Necessity, has attracted widespread interest.
"There was still a lot emphasis on big pipes, big infrastucture projects, at the expense of small-scale initatives and especially on-site sanitation," George said. More from Rose George in her interview last fall on the public-television program Foreign Exchange.
The stakes are vast.
John Sauer of Water Advocates calls it the "no-plumbing disease" – lack of access to basic sanitation that accounts for 10 per cent of the entire global disease burden, via diseases like diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, amoebic dysentery, giardia, and Guinea worm. The toll amongst children under five from diarrhea alone comes to some 1.8 million deaths a year – more than that from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
Dave Trouba, also at the Forum, made the analogy to the international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders. "Maybe what we really need is Plumbers Without Borders," said Trouba, a communications specialist with the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), an autonomous arm of World Health Organization.
On a gorgeous spring day in Addis Edstrom and Terrefe show off their garden – and what they see as potentially a big contributor to addressing those grim statistics.
In the system developed by Edstrom and Terrefe the urine is usable as fertilizer within 24 hours, so long as it is distributed underground instead of being poured directly on grass or the leaves of plant. The feces is composted for three months along with kitchen waste to be sure that pathogens have been safely removed.
Terrefe and Edstrom met when she came to Sweden from Ethiopia for college. She pursued graduate studies at Cambridge University and then settled in Stockholm. Fifteen years ago, now married to Edstrom, she proposed that they return to Ethiopia – and bring with them the sanitation ideas they had been developing with the help of scientists in Sweden and around the globe.
"The most important thing is training, training, training the people on how to use it," Terrefe said, stressing the importance of keeping the urine and feces separate and proper handling of the feces in compost. The equipment required is minimal, however, well under $100 in cost and virtually maintenance free – and once linked to a vegetable plot can meet up to 80 percent of a family's nutrition needs.
Another advantage of the urine-diversion system: no smell. It's the combining of feces and urine that produces most of the odor in human waste, Edstrom points out. It's the same combination that turns most of the waste into methane and ammonium that can't be used for fertilizer.
"What we wanted to do was to build up system in Addis Ababa," Edstrom said, "to have a system of collecting feces and urine separately. If you look all around Addis Ababa it needs a lot of fertilizer – and when we added urine here … we had big, big harvests," he added, four to 10 times the normal yield.
Can you train people to keep feces and urine separate, and to safely process both? How could such a system be applied in the vast urban slums of cities like Addis Ababa, with scant space for vegetable gardens?
Zeleke Nigani, head of hygiene and sanitation for the Ethiopian NGO Zema Setoch Lefitih Maheber, says that eco-san toilets aren't the answer for every neighborhood, especially in congested urban areas. Yet the potential is huge, he adds, for the millions of Ethiopians beyond the cities.
What's clear in a visit with Edstrom and Terrefe, their garden an oasis in a city that is mostly brown, is that there's potential in human waste that we've only begun to exploit.
"Now here's one thing that's really good for urine-fertilized production," Terrefe says, pulling up a giant stalk of Swiss chard. Also prospering: stands of arugula, paprika, and a great swath of flowering orange nasturtium that happens to be edible, Terrefe notes with a laugh – and quite tasty, too.
"If everybody was doing this in Ethiopia," Edstrom says, "you would have no starving at all."
Correction: The original post incorrectly stated that the total deaths from water and sanitation related disease is "more than the toll from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined." The statement is true only for children under 14, not adults (see Safer Water, Better Health (WHO) and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria). Corrections were made August 27, 2010.
Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center