24 MIN READ
Traditional flush toilets aren’t an option in many parts of the world, but neither is leaving people with unsafe and unhygenic choices. Now, one company is piloting a new loo that's waterless, off-grid and able to charge your phone. Lina Zeldovich travels to Madagascar to witness the start of a lavatorial revolution.
Eleonore Rartjarasoaniony – a 47-year-old mother, daughter and small-shop owner in Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo – stands in the middle of her yard, watching two young men in colorful overalls and rubber boots service her new waterless Loowatt toilet, which replaced her pit latrine a few months ago. At her feet, two lean, long-legged chickens, flocked by a bunch of fluffy chicks, peck at anything remotely resembling food, including my shoes. Inside a wooden shack behind her, Rartjarasoaniony’s elderly mother greets customers through a small window that overlooks the narrow, unpaved neighborhood street. That’s Rartjarasoaniony’s shop, in which she sells a bit of everything – kitchen sponges, eggs laid by her hens and freshly brewed coffee, which she hands out to customers in small metal cups, rinsed in a bucket of water from a communal pump. As she describes her new toilet in the soft Malagasy language – and Loowatt’s manager Anselme Andriamahavita translates – I discern the word tsara in the string of unfamiliar sounds. By now I’ve learned that tsara means ‘well’, as in wellbeing and healthy. Rartjarasoaniony switched to the new toilet because it’s cleaner and safer than her outhouse. “My family of four uses it, and so do my three tenants who rent the next house over – it’s included in the rent,” she says. “Even my son can use it,” she adds, echoing worries of all Malagasy mothers, terrified that their young children may one day fall into a pit and literally drown in shit. [caption id="attachment_20880" align="aligncenter" width="350"] Photo credit: Chester Holme[/caption] Like most Madagascan residents, Rartjarasoaniony and her tenants don’t have modern sanitation systems in their homes, which are built with bricks hand-made from red Madagascan mud. While cellphones are ubiquitous in Antananarivo, flush toilets are not. Most people use ‘Malagasy toilets’, meaning outhouses. Out in the country, some villagers don’t even have those – when nature calls, they head to the bushes or into the fields. The more sophisticated Malagasies who do own latrines call it ‘going au natural’. But latrines aren’t a hygienic solution either, and not only because they smell and are hard to keep clean. Madagascar has so much groundwater that many Antananarivo residents grow rice in their yards. When torrential rains hit, everything floods. The waste from latrines rises and floats into the yards, houses, shops and streets. The threat is very real. In a neighbor’s latrine across the street, the sordid grey goo almost reaches the pit’s surface, a clear menace come the next storm. “When we used the pit latrine before, and it rained, sometimes the water would come out,” Rartjarasoaniony tells me. “And we were afraid of getting sick because of the filth.”
Lack of toilets is not a problem unique to Madagascar. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 2.4 billion people lack access to basic toilet facilities, and nearly 1bn can’t even do their business in private, practizing so-called ‘open defecation’, resorting to fields, street gutters or creeks. Many countries, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, face similar sanitation challenges, says Francis de los Reyes at North Carolina State University, who designs sanitation management solutions for developing counties. In many places building a flushing toilet system, as we know it, is nearly impossible. Some places simply don’t have enough water. Some have too much, which complicates water treatment processes because of floods and overflows. Others don’t have the means to build the water-based infrastructure. That’s why Loowatt, a London-based startup, came up with a radically different flushing solution – one that doesn’t use water at all. In Loowatt’s waterless flush design, the waste is sealed into a biodegradable bag underneath the toilet with not a drop of water being spilled. Once full, the bag is replaced by a service team, and the waste is brought (yes, hand-delivered) to Loowatt’s pilot waste-processing facility, where it’s converted to fertilizer and biogas. [caption id="attachment_20881" align="aligncenter" width="999"] Photo credit: Chris Holme[/caption] This very manual setup sounds very archaic compared to the slick and convenient arrangements of the Western world. But sanitation experts think that in the era of climate change, when droughts and floods are becoming increasingly common, the West may have something to learn from the little waterless loos piloted in penniless Madagascan neighborhoods. With the world’s population ever-increasing, places that historically relied on water for sanitation may have to reconsider how they flush.
2.4 billion people lack access to basic toilet facilities, and nearly 1bn can’t even do their business in private
It was also too far from her house, which made things difficult. “If diarrhoea comes up at night, I’m afraid to go there,” she says. “Sometimes you would go there and it would be really dirty and you’d have to clean it before you could use it.” Electricity isn’t always available in Antananarivo either, so imagine doing all that in the dark. “With this toilet I feel safe and secure,” she adds. As we leave her yard, I steal a glance at Razafindeamiza’s living room through the window, which, like many other houses here, doesn’t have glass in the panes. The room looks nice, with teak furniture, a TV and pictures of Santa Claus and Dora the Explorer on the walls. But at the gates, we hop over a ditch that carries wastewater out of the house and into the gutters on the street. The ditch is full of a stagnant greyish fluid that stinks of rotten food and probably of faeces too. By now I am so immune to these smells that I can’t tell if it’s just muddy water or a recent overflow from a latrine. As de los Reyes, who studies faecal sludge management, once said: “In the developing world, people are surrounded by shit, often unbeknownst to them.” Later, as Andriamahavita is driving us from Loowatt’s pilot neighbourhood to the main office, I can’t help but ask: “Gloria works for the Ministry of Health, and her house looks rather nice, so why can’t she afford a home with a better toilet?” “A government job doesn’t necessarily pay a lot of money,” Andriamahavita explains, but the biggest problem is the infrastructure. “We don’t really have a sewage system like in the Occident.” Middle-class Malagasies can afford certain life perks, like a TV, a stereo system, a smartphone, even a second-hand car. But a flush toilet isn’t something an individual’s money can buy. A flush toilet needs a sophisticated set of underground pipes linking it to a facility that can digest its output – a sewage plant that cleans the water, releasing it back into the rivers and oceans, and re-processes the so-called biosolids into fertiliser safe to put onto fields. It takes the entirety of society to make sanitation work – an individual cannot master that challenge alone. Canadian epidemiologist David Waltner-Toews, author of The Origin of Feces, says it’s because humans have a very complicated relationship with their own waste.
With this toilet I feel safe and secure
For all these reasons, the Gates Foundation issued their Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, which called for more than just a clean removal of waste. Toilets of the future should recover ‘valuable resources’ from the waste, namely energy, nutrients and clean water. They must operate off the grid, without access to water, electricity or sewage plants, and fit into poor urban settings. And yet, they should be attractive enough for the high-income world to use. This last requirement makes sense: in a world where every appliance is becoming smarter by the day, sanitation systems have to catch up. It was much easier for Mother Nature to clean up after the 300 million or so folks that lived on our planet 2,000 years ago compared to the 7bn that live here today, or the 9bn that will live here by 2050. And the waste we produce will keep piling up. Sanitation is such a hot issue that there’s now an international conference in faecal sludge management, or FSM, aimed at keeping the world clean of the crap humans produce. And for good reason – without an organized waste-disposal system, society is basically doomed to languish in poverty and disease. [caption id="attachment_20883" align="aligncenter" width="350"] Photo credit: Chris Holmes[/caption] Open defecation, for example, is dangerous for several reasons. One is that woods and fields can be unsafe, especially in the dark and especially for women and children, because of everything from crime to poisonous snakes. But the other problem is that it creates huge health hazards. When faecal matter makes it into drinking water, it spreads cholera, dysentery and even polio, continuing the cycle of disease and poverty. The toll on human health is enormous. According to 2016 numbers from the WHO, about 842,000 people in low- and middle-income countries die every year from poor water, sanitation and hygiene. The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have an even higher estimate of children’s deaths from diarrhoea – 2,195 a day – more than HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles combined. That takes a toll on countries’ health systems and economies. De los Reyes says that, depending on the country, if you add up the cost of healthcare, lost workdays, absences from school and other missed opportunities, the economic toll can vary from 1 to 4 per cent of GDP, and in some cases even higher. There’s also an environmental price to pay for poor sanitation. A waste overload creates rivers devoid of fish and bubbling with methane, groundwater contaminated with faecal bacteria, and other problems. Building designated waste repositories like latrines doesn’t make waste disappear either. Where space is plenty, people can just close off a full latrine and dig another hole. But when space is tight, like in crowded Antananarivo, where families are forced to share latrines, someone has to take out the trash. In Madagascar it’s usually men equipped with buckets. In Ethiopia it’s also men, who pour kerosene onto the waste to mask the smell and drink heavily before descending into the pit to dull their senses. But in India it’s often women of the lowest caste, the Dalits, who empty the pits – by scooping the waste into woven baskets, which they carry away on their heads, teaching their young daughters to do it too. [caption id="attachment_20884" align="aligncenter" width="350"] Photo Credit: Chris Holme[/caption] The amount of pathogens that can dwell in that sludge is mind-boggling: those responsible for hepatitis A and B, cholera, campylobacter, dysentery and salmonella, plus intestinal worms that you don’t even have to ingest to get sick – you can inhale them. From research samples taken from latrines all over the world, de los Reyes has seen all of that and more. He has been vaccinated and routinely takes a de-worming pill after gathering samples, just to be on the safe side. But most people who empty latrines, or have their latrines emptied and have droppings left in their yards, don’t have access to de-worming pills, and many don’t have the immunisations either. Even when there is a public sanitation system, faecal sludge is often not treated to the appropriate standards before it is put back into the environment. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, only 2 per cent is treated acceptably, the rest just gets dumped out there, de los Reyes says. The waste from Antananarivo homes that do have a flush toilet ultimately ends up in the city’s lake. From a distance, the lake looks pretty. Young couples walk along the water tapping on cellphones, but when I get near it, I have to hold my nose, overwhelmed by the stink. The lake smells worse than the ditch outside Razafindeamiza’s house. Giving every teenager a phone is easy, in the sense that cell towers are fairly simple to install. But processing poo is a much stickier problem. To shape shit into something harmless and useful takes a very concentrated effort.
Toilets of the future must operate off the grid, without access to water, electricity or sewage plants, and fit into poor urban settings
For now, Loowatt’s UK-generated waste ends up at existing industrial treatment plants, not little hyperlocal biodigesters, as in Antananarivo, pumping out compost. But, for Waltner-Toews, the idea of waste processing becoming more local is not that far-fetched. Just like we have realized that food is best produced and consumed locally, we might scale down our waste-processing facilities to mediate what he calls the “redistribution of nutrients on the planet”. When we continuously transport corn from South America, tomatoes from Israel and strawberries from California to other locales, we alter the nutritional balance of those ecosystems. “You’re taking all this biodiversity out of one ecosystem and creating these piles of shit somewhere else,” Waltner-Toews says. And because we don’t ship our poo back to where the food came from, we deplete soils in some places and over-enrich others. So if we’re trying to make growing and eating food a local issue, then why not our poo processing too? [caption id="attachment_20885" align="aligncenter" width="350"] Photo credit: Chris Holme[/caption] While it’s unlikely that every Western toilet will eventually have a biodigester attached to its bottom, or that little poop-collecting carts will roam the streets of London, Paris or New York, change isn’t impossible. Perhaps some places will be able to have machine-based food and faecal waste collection to feed an anaerobic neighborhood digester that chugs out compost for urban farms. The push to reinvent our waste processing is happening worldwide, with universities and startups working on alternative approaches. Some are using solar power to run electrochemical reactions to break down waste. Some are converting it to biochar – briquettes that can be burned in stoves to cook food. Others are focusing on improving the existing flush toilet systems by extracting and purifying water, or recycling it back to the toilet for more flushing. Some of these new systems favor an anaerobic approach, others use oxygen, but they all look for alternatives to our existing industrial solutions, which don’t reflect 21st-century needs. At the end of the site visit I realize that, after several hours of talking toilets, I could really use one myself. Conveniently, there’s a Loowatt nearby. Remembering Razanadrakoto’s talk about broken ropes, I double-check the lever that makes the biofilm seal the waste. The white film moves inside the basin with a faint whoosh and I feel confident to get down to business. Sitting on a Loowatt loo feels no different to sitting on my toilet at home in New York City – except when I look up there’s no roof, just a man standing in a mango tree, shaking the branches to release the fruit. As with regular toilets, sitting on a Loowatt seems to put you in a pensive mood. It occurs to me that I may be contributing to the man’s next harvest this very moment. The peach tree in my own backyard would benefit from a similar contribution, I think, but New York’s sanitation system has no way of achieving that. I wonder if my home will ever feature a toilet of the future, capable of converting my waste into a food source for my trees. I pull the lever. Above me, in the mango tree, the man climbs ever higher, reaching for the fruit just beyond his reach.
If we’re trying to make growing and eating food a local issue, then why not our poo processing too?
Lina Zeldovich Lina Zeldovich grew up in a family of Russian scientists listening to bedtime stories about volcanoes, black holes and dangerous pathogens. Since then, she’s edited science features at Nautilus, won two awards for a story about poo, and has written for, among others, the Smithsonian, Hakai Magazine, Audubon Magazine and Popular Mechanics. She lives in New York and is working on a book about the most misunderstood matter in the universe: human waste. Visit her at LinaZeldovich.com or @linazeldovich