Friday, June 18, 2010

Improving Improved Sanitation-Toilet Tale #4

The world water crisis often focuses on not having enough water for people to drink. A huge problem, for sure, and the reason Water For People came to existence. But water is used for so many other important activities-such as washing hands and flushing toilets. Without enough water to go around, something’s got to give.

At Demetrio Canelas Colegio, in peri-urban Cochabama, over 750 students, ranging from kindergardeners to high schoolers, share four toilets for girls and four toilets for boys. The school has improved sanitation-a sector definition for technologies that, at least in theory, are private and separate poop from human contact. But whether there is enough water to go around to flush those toilets and keep the poop from little hands is another story.

Maica Central, the community in which Demetrio Canelas is located, is not connected to any municipal water supply. The local government provides the equivalent of one tanker truck of water per week, free of charge, to the school. The underground storage tank at the school, however, is too small to store all of the water. Meaning the school constantly suffers from water shortages. And “improved sanitation” more often than not, looks and smells not so improved.

Improved sanitation does not necessarily mean a hygienic and comfortable solution.

The headmaster of Demetrio Canelas is a tireless advocate for the environment. Frustrated by the deteriorating environment he sees each year, he launched a tree-planting campaign and tied professor’s performances to including environmental education and activities in their curriculums. He was interested in building ecological sanitation toilets to replace the chronically dirty water-based ones and sought out Water For People’s peri-urban team. After several meetings with the Parent-Teacher Association, it became clear that people were not interested in ecological, or dry, composting toilets. Choice and community interest and approval are fundamental to sustainability, so staff and partners came up with an alternative solution to the problem, rather than impose one possible solution.

A 10,000 liter storage tank was built. The larger tank size means that the school won’t waste the remaining water that their current storage tank cannot hold. Moreover, the tank is also connected to a filtered rainwater harvesting system, meaning that for several months out of the year, supply will be abundant. During construction, the smallest kidnergardners were measured and steps of various heights were placed around the tank to make sure height doesn’t keep kids from washing their hands.

Three different heights allow the smallest to tallest kids to wash their hands.

Over 30,000 Bolivian children die each year from diarrheal illnesses, but handwashing is a key barrier to keeping the poop, and the microbes in it, from entering their systems. Last year, during the swine flu scare, recorded childhood diarrheal illnesses dropped by about 15% in Bolivia. Washing hands works-but there’s got to be water around to do it.

Bolivia was home to the People’s Alternative Climate Change this past April and over the past few years, I have seen recycling take off in the country. The water tank is not reinforced concrete, nor ferro-cement, but rather uses PET bottles filled with soil as bricks.

Each child brought two bottles to school as part of a recycling campaign and skilled masons are transforming those Coke bottles from providing soda to water for drinking, washing hands, and improving the so-called improved toilets so that they actually are a private, clean place for kids to go when nature calls.

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