Saturday, May 9, 2009

Bien, No Mas-Lessons from Looking at Toilets

It's official...I am a bad blogger. More than two months since my last post! Life got busy after reveling in Carnaval in Bolivia in February. March took me to Turkey for the World Water Forum and Matt and I spent some time touring the sites, buying too much pottery, and gaining back all the weight I lost from the appendectomy with the delicous Turkish food! Being the bad, lazy blogger that I am, if you want to see Turkey photos, go to Matt's Facebook page and check them out.

April took us through the States on a whirlwind trip for a new business visa for Peru. I stopped in Evanston for less than 24 hours, picked up my new visa in Denver and was back to Peru before I knew it. April was a good month in Peru-felt like things are finally moving; we finished our first phase of registration so we can be legit, and our feasability study of where we will start is underway-two huge accomplishments! We finally got to Macchu Pichu with friends visited from NYC and I highly recommend upgrading from the backpacker train if you ever go...who knew that fashion shows at high altitudes on high-speeding trains existed! Turned 30 in Bolivia with Leah and laughed my way out of my twenties and into my thirties with such a dear friend.

Back in Bolivia, en route to Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras-not a joke! Bolivia inspires in a way that I hope Peru does some day, too, so here's some thoughts from the field last week.

I wipe the dust from my eyes for what feels like the hundredth time, resist the urge to scratch the nagging bites around my ankles, and lean in closer to hear what Gladys has to say, as the squeaking pigs and clucking chickens compete with the soft-spoken Bolivian woman. We have found the only shade in her patio-underneath a banana grove that provides a much-welcome reprise from the unusually hot morning. We’ve been out since 5:30 a.m., as many people leave to work in the fields by 8 am. “Bien, no mas,” she responds when talking about her ecological bathroom. I’ve thought about how to translate “bien, no mas” into English over the past few days as it was such a common response to our questions and what feels the closest is FINE. Gladys doesn’t know it, but she’s famous. Word that a woman had organized other women in her barrio into a Bolivian “DBE” reached me and I was eager to meet the ‘abono’ lady.

In San Pedro, Bolivia, a town of mostly migrants from other parts of Bolivia, we are here to listen, learn, and improve our sanitation programming as part of an on-going sanitation training. The town is cut off from the rest of world for anywhere from 2-4 months out of the year when the nearby River Pirai swells its banks and covers everything. Nearly all the houses are made from wood or chuchillo, a local plant that reminds me of super-sized sugarcane. Men spend all day-some spend weeks-in their chacros tending to rice, soy, and sugarcane crops. Few own their land, and many have lost the last two years of rice crops with erratic weather patterns. Women, and more often than not, their daughters, stay at home doing all that needs to be done to get by in places were wood needs chopping before you can begin to cook, water needs to be stored to wash your clothes, and the never-ending fight against the dust epidemic requires constant efforts. Mother nature was particularly nasty this year, bringing flood levels not seen in years and hemorrhagic dengue in addition to “regular” dengue. The water levels on the sides of the home tell stories of past flood seasons and surely the hardships that go along with living in submerged water for several months of the year.

The paved road ends about 2 hours, on a good day, from San Pedro. Trucks laden with thousands of dollars of soy and sugarcane create permanent ruts-some half my height-making transportation difficult and expensive. Out of curiosity, I look behind us and realize the back window is not tinted, but covered in days of hard-packed dust. Back to the front window, where the view goes from a hazy sunset over the soy fields to a brown snowstorm. We are coming up on one of the camions that trucks thousands of dollars of raw materials from the interior to the exterior to be processed. The driver swerves to the right and it feels like we are in deep snow as we slowly make our way past the 18-wheeler and emerge from the dust again. The truck driver’s cheek is swollen with coca, the infamous and controversial natural product that has existed for thousands of years in Bolivia. He is most likely headed to the “interior” which means a 12-14 day moving probably 10/km an hour.

Taking stock of Gladys’s home, I remember our basement flooding when I was a child. We would come back from visits to my grandparents and the entire basement would be underwater; my parents would be up all hours of the night trying to salvage what used to occupy the first few feet of the basement. We had a toilet in the basement, not one that I ever remember anybody using, but surely it must have been flooded when the entire basement was. A similar thing happens in San Pedro, but it happens every year and is not solved with a sump pump and two crabby parents. Most homes consist of three separate structures; one room where the family sleeps-anywhere from 4-12 people; a separate kitchen where women and girls as soon as they are old enough,-which often is the age I started kindergarten- spend most of the day preparing and cooking food over wooden fires. The walls are charred by the accumulation of cooking with wood; I can’t help but imagine what their lungs look like. Not surprisingly, diarrhea and respiratory illnesses are the biggest killers of little kids in the country. Finally, usually in the corner of the lot-as far away as possible, but still on the family’s property-is a three-sided, un-roofed, waist-high simple pit latrine. I can see the indents from the latrines of past years; those whose contents were spread throughout the neighborhood with the yearly rains.

We can’t stop the rains, but we can stop them from spreading shit into people’s cooking areas, bedrooms, and neighbors homes. For several years, we have been supporting an ecological sanitation program in the region, in which elevated, alternating-twin pit toilets have been constructed with local government, community, and Water For People support. It was time to have a look and see what was working and what was not. For the ecological sanitation neophytes, this approach to sanitation departs radically from the conventional water-based sanitation solutions. Ecological sanitation encompasses three components: it views #1 and #2 as valuable resources, not as wastes that must be flushed away with potable water; it protects the environment as it does not contaminate ground-water supplies, and it contributes to food security by providing a rich source of fertilizer. Still with me? Yep, I’m saying using your urine and your shit on crops. Many of the people in the world-from Bolivia to Bangladesh-who lack access to one of life’s basic necessities subsist themselves and their families through small scale agriculture. The specific technology being implemented in San Pedro includes above-ground storage compartments so as not to contaminate groundwater, which one finds very quickly after digging here. While ecological sanitation is not a new theme in the water and sanitation field, its success has been limited for a variety of factors. It requires open minds of practitioners, local leaders, and users; different maintenance than simply a twist of the wrist and a flush and continued follow-up to ensure proper maintenance and quality control of the excrements. This is the “traditional” approach to ecological sanitation, but Water For People is innovating on this approach even further. By thinking out of the bowl, per se, however, ecological sanitation provides a potentially income-generating solution for folks who are the faces of those living on dollars/day, as the ‘abono’ or fertilizer can be sold to agricultural companies or intermediaries or used to improve a families crops for household use or sale.

Gladys breaks out into a hearty laugh as we come up with creative strategies (not to be repeated here) on how to get some of the difficult men in the neighborhood on the pot, so to say, with ecological sanitation. Since emptying her toilet last year for the first time, Gladys has been experimenting with plants and the fertilizer. She thinks she has found the magic mix, after trying several different types of fertilizers on a variety of ornamental plants and citrus fruits. She doesn’t think small, though, this 34 year old mother of three. Recently, her women’s group won a 30,000 Boliviano (about $4200) prize for productive sanitation. They have been collected neighbor’s abonos and starting a small business selling plants. Her customers say that her plants are larger than others of the same age and in the past few months since the business began, she has pulled in several hundred bolivianos. Plans are to invest this money in a much larger operation that will be commercially viable, at least on a micro-enterprise level. We talk about profits and she says this is the first year she is starting to see some of her investments come back and surely this cold hard cash prize will help take this to the next level.

We finish the formal part of our interview and observe her bathroom, but she spends the entire day with my group as she was the sanitation promoter during the project. As we saunter under umbrellas from house to house, we stop at a large piece of land that she is renting for the construction of a much larger production area. Gulping down chicha de maiz, she points out the work that they have already done and the excitement in her voice for her future plans is contagious. Next up is a urine experimentation plot where she will test which plants grow best with urine application. “ Ese bano es una maravilla,” she says as she gives it a gentle pat, “no solamente no huele, es mas sana, pero esta me da unos bolivianitos.”

Our simple scoring system attempted to define how many toilets were “verde”-meaning they were well-used and well-maintained, “Amarillo”, meaning that some things could be improved, but in general, the systems were sustainable, and “rojo” which meant exactly what you might picture. Gladys was a verde plus, but the challenge lies in the nearly 40% that weren’t. This is year three of a five year program in the region, so with the results, our staff and partners are aimed to make positive changes in many aspects-from demand generation, to correcting technical deficiencies, to creating viable sources of income with the products.

Glady’s story is a bright one in a sea of failed sanitation projects not only in San Pedro, but the world over. Sadly, one of the lessons learned after the 1980s Water and Sanitation Decade (in which everybody in the world was supposed to have access to water and sanitation), was that sanitation programming must be determined by customer demand, not be a well-meaning, but more often than not, unsustained engineering solution. Gladys is easily an “earlier adopter” as marketers would call her and her successful toilet-fertilizer-plant business could be just the local catalyst needed to convince others not only to use their bathroom effectively, but to follow suit and reap some of the “unconventional”, yet distinctly natural, benefits.

Photos forthcoming with a more cooperative internet connection, como siempre.....

1 comment:

Trapeze Artist said...

What a rich blog you write, Senora La Kate! It has character, complexity, tension, irony--I'm not kidding!! You rock, almost as much as Gladys herself. And I am on the edge of my seat to know how the story of abono in San Pedro will come out. Please go back and write the next chapter, and the next! Your fan, TinaTenango.