by Lillian Mongeau
Wilmene Exama,13, does not like going to the bathroom in the field. “I have to hide under a bush and there are always pigs around,” she said, scrunching up her nose.
It is likely Wilmene has never gone to the bathroom indoors, let alone on a white porcelain flush toilet like the kind that is standard in the United States. Wilmene lives in Cite Soleil, the poorest neighborhood in Port au Prince, Haiti. Small cement houses line wide streets teeming with barefoot children. Hovering over the orderly blocks, a warren of bare wires siphons the city’s electricity to the tin-roofed homes. In the late eighties, foreign investors were building new factories here and the neighborhood was built to lure workers. Now, the never-opened factories rust less than a mile from Cite Soleil. There is no plumbing here.
The field Wilmene and most of her neighbors use as a bathroom is a verdant wetlands that stretches from the edge of Cite Soliel to the Caribbean Sea. The view is stunning. Undulating grasses abut an aquamarine sea.
Wilmene was not looking at the view. She explained how she carried toilet paper with her to wipe herself clean after doing her business. If there wasn’t toilet paper available, she said, she used notebook paper. If that wasn’t available, she looked for a smooth rock.
“I’d rather have another system,” she said. She is not alone. Most of Haiti would rather have another system. What that system might realistically be is another question.
To put it simply, there are no toilets in Haiti.
At least, not toilets as Americans understand them. The main reason there are no toilets is that there is no plumbing, in Cite Soleil or anywhere else. This means there are no sewer systems. This means that the only water sanitation plant, which was built this year and is not yet operating, has no way of sanitizing anything.
Though many people use the fields or the streets or the open sewage canals for their needs, most prefer privacy. A popular solution is to defecate into a plastic bag at night, then tie it off and toss it on a nearby roof in the morning. It bakes up there, killing the smell, and no one can see it. When it rains, these bags are washed into the open sewage canals. Some toss the bags there in the first place.
The baggie method notwithstanding, the most common receptacle for the country’s waste is the pit latrine. These generally stink, are infested with flies and are often dug deep enough to become a steady source of poison to the groundwater. In many overcrowded urban neighborhoods, the adults refuse to use them out of embarrassment. The stink, they say, sticks to your clothes.
Into this literal mess stepped a tiny new non-profit called GiveLove that is dedicated to bringing the country toilets.
But embarrassment and foul odors are the least of the problem. The complete lack of sanitation means clean water is hard to come by in Haiti. This has been a major contributor to the rapid spread of cholera here since last fall.
And cholera is only one of the diseases resulting from poor sanitation. The flies and mosquitoes attracted to human excrement spread malaria and dengue fever, both endemic in this tropical country. And hookworms, whipworms, ringworms and nearly every other form of nasty sounding digestive tract parasite you can think of thrive. Up to 22 percent of children under five years old die of diarrhea-related diseases in Haiti every year, according to 2008 data from the World Health Organization.
Into this literal mess has stepped a tiny new non-profit called GiveLove that is dedicated to bringing the country toilets. GiveLove doesn’t have a single plumber on staff, though. The genius of their plan is that plumbing won’t be necessary. They’re going to do this thing dry. They’re going to compost the waste. And sell it. And grow vegetables. Seriously.
“No smell, no flies,” Jean Lucho, GiveLove’s Haitian program director, is fond of explaining to potential converts.
And it’s true, but it’s not intuitive. Vanette Janivier, 24, lives in another of Port au Prince’s neighborhoods, Delmas 19. Janivier was eager to give a tour of her bustling part of the city to the newest visiting blanc, the Haitian word for foreigner, and answer some odd questions about where she went to the bathroom.
At the corner where the street dead-ended at an open sewage canal, she stopped to explain the baggie method. A better solution, she suggested, would be for everyone to get a flush toilet. She wasn’t optimistic about the likelihood of flush toilets for all though, so she listened intently to an explanation of GiveLove’s composting system. She was skeptical.
“What’s the difference,” Janivier wanted to know, “between putting it in a bag and tossing it in a compost bin?”
These are the kind of questions that Lucho gets daily. He keeps his irritation in check though. In a compost bin, he explained to me later, Janivier’s waste would become a resource instead of trash.
“Their poop is a value,” he said of all the pooping people who have not yet seen the light. “Their poop is a gourde” (Haitian currency).
This is the message Lucho is intent on delivering: Our composting system, which we will teach you how to set up and run yourselves, will turn your waste into money.
The system is based on one developed by an American named Joseph Jenkins and his self-published book, The Humanure Handbook. He’s sold 45,000 paper copies since the early 1990s and an unknown number of free copies have been downloaded from the Internet.
The Humanure Handbook is a quirky piece of do-it-yourself literature, punctuated with mini-rants by Jenkins and hand-drawn comics like the one on page 188 of a man sitting on a toilet with a light bulb thought bubble hovering over his head. But all the crazy is woven around solid references to microbiology textbooks and peer-reviewed studies. And the system is so simple, it begins to make intuitive sense as soon as you start reading.
At least, that was the conclusion of TV and movie star Patricia Arquette. She called Jenkins in 2010 to ask him to help her implement the system in Haiti through GiveLove, her new non-profit there. Jenkins had no idea who the Emmy-award winning actress was since he doesn’t own a TV. He agreed to help anyway.
Arquette flew him to Haiti, where he trained Lucho on the humanure system. Since that visit a year ago, Lucho has set up seven such systems.
Here’s How It Works
A five-gallon bucket is placed in a box with a regular toilet cover. Users are meant to deposit their urine and “humanure” in the bucket and then cover their waste with a few handfuls of dry organic material like sawdust. When the bucket fills up — it takes three people about a week to fill a bucket — it is emptied into a large, outdoor compost bin and layered with more dry organic material.
The bin is about five feet high and six feet long. It can be built with old shipping pallets or any other untreated wood. Once it’s filled, it’s left untouched for a year while microorganisms burrow away at the stuff and turn it into usable compost. Other than the fragrant scent of the sawdust, there is virtually no smell either in the bathroom or by the compost pile. (I know, I toured five of GiveLove’s six pilot systems and stayed at their headquarters, which sports a seventh such system.)
The key element to the whole thing is the fact that sitting compost, when correctly layered and left undisturbed, will heat up to temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit and higher. At his pilot sites, Lucho has measured temperatures of more than 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This is hot enough to kill any human pathogens, including hookworms, E. Coli and cholera. What’s left at the end of the year is clean, nitrogen-rich compost suitable for food crops. Leaders at the schools and non-profits where GiveLove has set up composting systems proclaim themselves completely satisfied.
“This toilet is exceptional,” said Rea Dol, director of a K-8 school called Institution Mixte. “The poop is there and there’s no smell!”
What’s left at the end of the year is clean, nitrogen-rich compost suitable for food crops.
Dol unlocked the door to the dank pit latrine that had served the school prior to the installation of the composting toilets.
“You couldn’t stand near it at the end of the day, it smelled so bad,” she said, peering into the dark space. The old latrine didn’t smell anymore after seven months of disuse but Dol still wrinkled her nose.
The new toilet system at Institution Mixte — four bathroom stalls and two compost bins built a few feet away from the old latrine — has been in place since March. The full-time janitor there had been trained in the process of managing the system and he reported that everything was on track. The first compost bin is not full yet. When it is, the next question will be how to turn that compost into the promised gourdes.
Institution Mixte is located in an urban area on the edge of Port au Prince called Petion-ville. The two-story school building sits on a small lot, bordered by private property on two sides and by streets on the other two sides. There is no room for more than a few potted plants here; far less space than would be needed to use the compost for planting on site. It’s clear the only way to get the compost out of the tiny courtyard will be by truck.
Dol laughed when asked what she’s going to do with her soon-to-be usable compost.
“It’s a program,” she said. She plucked at Lucho’s shoulder and grinned. She had faith in him, even if she wasn’t really sure how exactly he was going to dispose of the pile of no-smell, no-flies waste she now has stacked in her school’s courtyard.
The world has become particularly interested in Haiti since a devastating 7.0 earthquake hit the island nation in January 2010. But for people like Dol and her students, sanitation was clearly a problem before the ground started shaking. For proof, they had the stinking latrine in their courtyard, swarming with flies and mosquitoes.Lucho, a hard-charging 24-year-old with bright eyes and a quick intellect, has faith in his project for this fact alone. “The way we make [compost], it’s one of the best solutions,” Lucho said. “We can get people to see this, to open their eyes.”
When people open their eyes, he believes, they will see the obvious benefits and be won over immediately. So far, this has proved true. But unless he and his GiveLove team can maintain the enthusiasm of people like Dol by figuring out a way to sell the compost they have produced, this will be the point at which the program runs aground.
Several large organizations operating in Haiti got to this question almost immediately when they reviewed the GiveLove system.
“We’re interested,” said Hans Visser, shelter manager for the British Red Cross, when he heard about GiveLove’s program. Then he had questions: Who picked the compost up when it was ready to sell? Would selling it pay enough to justify someone buying or renting a truck to move it? Why would people in the countryside buy compost from the city? Do they not have enough compost out there? Was there a study he could look at?
GiveLove hasn’t answered these questions and no, there’s no study. Yet.
Alisa Keesey, GiveLove’s program manager, expects GiveLove: Haiti to have a working community model within a year. The four-year plan is for the Haitian organization to become independent of its American founder. That would mean Lucho’s organization would have to find a way to finance itself. Right now, all of its funding comes from private donors in the United States.
The key element to the whole thing is the fact that sitting compost, when correctly layered and left undisturbed, will heat up to temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit and higher. At his pilot sites, Lucho has measured temperatures of more than 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This is hot enough to kill any human pathogens, including hookworms, E. Coli and cholera. What’s left at the end of the year is clean, nitrogen-rich compost suitable for food crops.
We’re the only animal that intentionally defecates into its drinking water.
Leaders at the schools and non-profits where GiveLove has set up composting systems proclaim themselves completely satisfied.“This toilet is exceptional,” said Rea Dol, director of a K-8 school called Institution Mixte. “The poop is there and there’s no smell!”Dol unlocked the door to the dank pit latrine that had served the school prior to the installation of the composting toilets. “You couldn’t stand near it at the end of the day, it smelled so bad,” she said, peering into the dark space. The old latrine didn’t smell anymore after seven months of disuse but Dol still wrinkled her nose.
Neither Keesey, nor Lucho think foreign support is a sustainable or desirable long-term solution. “It’s unrealistic to expect western NGOs to pay, in perpetuity, for people to have a toilet,” Keesey said.One idea is that people might be willing to pay for someone to come to their house and collect their full five-gallon buckets. If they are, the charitable program will quickly have a business model.
Defecating in Our Drinking Water Steffen Mittach, director of program services for Habitat for Humanity: Haiti, agrees that western nongovernmental organizations can’t be expected to support third world toilets. He also agrees that it’s foolish to expect a pipe system any time soon here. So when Habitat set out to build a small community outside Port au Prince, they solicited proposals for simple, dry systems.
“How can you expect improvements if you do what you’ve done for hundreds of years?” he asked.
GiveLove submitted its system for consideration, but it wasn’t selected. Mittach said a system dependent on a trained manager is impractical. That would require continued input on the part of Habitat, Mittach said.
“It’s a project in its own right,” he said shaking his head.
Instead, Habitat has opted for a dry toilet by a company called Ecosur. In this setup, an underground bucket collets the waste. Urine drips through to the ground and feces stay in the bucket. A black metal flap allows someone to reach down with a hook on a pole and switch the full bucket for an empty one. The full one then bakes in the heat of the underground compartment. This is meant to kill disease and eliminate odor. When the buckets need to be switched again, the full one is emptied into a hole in the ground or into a landfill. This is ridiculous, said Jenkins. Though the Ecosur system does not pollute groundwater or leave fields covered in feces, it is still a waste of potential in Jenkins’ view.
“That’s the hardest for people to understand,” he said. “Human waste has always been a disposal phenomenon. From a sanitation point of view, this whole idea [of using fecal waste] is just alien to most humans.” Jenkins also scoffed at the idea, expressed by Mittach and others, that pipes and a working sanitation plant would be the best solution.
“A working sewer system is by definition a water pollution system,” he said. The treated water that comes out of a sanitation plant is still more polluted than when it went in. “We’re the only animal that intentionally defecates into its drinking water,” he said.Keesey is more willing to understand the skepticism.“There really are no off-the-shelf managing systems as to how to do this,” she said. “We’re not going to be able to sell it to anyone unless we pilot it ourselves.”
Port au Prince spreads southeast from a large bay toward the rolling inland hills. The steep, narrow roads are jam-packed with motorcycle taxis, uniformed students and giant SUVs. Hawkers sell everything from pills to cell phones to shoes on the side of the road. Modified pick up trucks, called tap-taps, are the public transportation method of choice. Jump in at a street corner, then tap-tap on the front cab to tell the driver when you’ve reached your stop.
When it rains in Haiti, it pours. The water runs downhill on streets and through open sewage canals. These dump into the sea near Cite Soleil, which sits at the bottom of the hill. When there’s not enough water, the canals get clogged with trash and the result is a river of refuse: A toy stuffed monkey surfs a Styrofoam-tipped wave. Used plastic water-baggies picturing a shivering penguin float atop rivulets of tin cans. Flip flops, plastic spoons and pill bottles threaten to overrun the banks. The residents of Cite Soleil aren’t the only ones who see how bad it’s gotten. Jovenel Dubois, general manager of the city’s largest sanitation company, has noticed it too. But, he said, there’s not much he can do.
Jedco’s primary business consists of shoveling out the contents of pit latrines and transporting the waste to a landfill located on the other side of Cite Soliel from the surfing monkey. Dedicated environmentalists like Lucho hate that Jedco and other companies dump untreated and chemically treated waste this way. Dubois hates it too.
“Jedco is aware that the dump site is not where it should be, but that is the only official dump site that is government approved,” he said. Dubois said his company had tried, without success, to convince the government to move the dumpsite. Jedco is also in the process of looking for a partnership with a sanitation company from abroad that could help them with the technology needed to build a waste treatment plant. Dubois is especially interested in a plant that would allow for the capturing of methane as a clean energy source.“In the meantime,” he said, “we can’t allow people to dump their waste in the streets.” Of course, those that can’t afford Jedco’s services are dumping away.
‘Our ambition is to participate in the new Haiti, a Haiti with an ecosystem that can provide for itself.’
Back in Cite Soliel, a set of community leaders see GiveLove’s composting system as the best solution to this problem. These young men are committed to looking in their own community for a solution rather than waiting for one from abroad.
“The problem is fecal matter everywhere,” said Chrisnor Saint Fleur, 27. “The solution is we can use it as a resource.”
Cite Soliel has more empty land than many urban neighborhoods in Port au Prince, so any compost they produce could be used to grow food locally. Saint Fleur and his fellow leaders know there will be work ahead.
“To stop one system and start a new one is always difficult,” said Gueldy Rene, 25, Saint Fleur’s fellow community leader.
He said they will need to invest their community in the new system. To do that, the system will need to be set up well from the beginning to make success evident quickly. But these young men, from one of the poorest, dirtiest corners of the earth, are optimistic that solutions like GiveLove’s are the key to Haiti’s future and they are ready to be a part of it.“Our ambition is to participate in the new Haiti,” Saint Fleur said, “a Haiti with an ecosystem that can provide for itself.” Fleur’s fellow community leader. He said they will need to invest their community in the new system. To do that, the system will need to be set up well from the beginning to make success evident quickly.But these young men, from one of the poorest, dirtiest corners of the earth, are optimistic that solutions like GiveLove’s are the key to Haiti’s future and they are ready to be a part of it.