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Water & Sanitation

Ecological Latrines Catch on in Rural Cuba

Pastor Demas Rodríguez shows a dry composting toilet in the town of Babiney, in the eastern Cuban province of Granma. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

BABINEY, Cuba , Jan 31 2015 (IPS) - Most people in Cuba without toilets use the traditional outhouse. But an innovative, ecological alternative is catching on in remote rural communities.

So far 85 dry latrines have been installed in eastern Cuba – the poorest part of the country – thanks to the support of the non-governmental ecumenical Bartolomé G. Lavastida Christian Centre for Service and Training (CCSC-Lavastida) based in Santiago de Cuba, 847 km from Havana, which carries out development projects in this region.

“Over 70 percent of these toilets are in San Agustín, a town in the province of Santiago de Cuba. The rest are in Boniato and the municipality of Santiago de Cuba, in that same province; and in Caney, Babiney and Bayamo, in the province of Granma,” CCSC’s head of social projects, César Parra, told IPS.

Dry composting latrines separate urine from feces. The latter is used to produce fertiliser. They prevent the proliferation of disease-spreading vectors and the contamination of nearby sources of water, unlike the classic pit latrines that abound in the Cuban countryside.

“In eastern Cuba, we replicated the pioneering work of the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Man (FANJ),” said Parra, a veterinarian, during an exchange on permaculture among farmers in the region, held in the town of Babiney, in the province of Granma.

“For us it’s been a really good thing because it doesn’t pollute, it saves a lot of water, and it provides us with natural fertiliser.” – Local farmer Marislennys Hernández

Five years ago, FANJ introduced dry latrines in Cuba as part of permaculture, a system that combines green-friendly human settlements and sustainable farms. It was involved in the construction of another 30 ecotoilets distributed in the provinces of Sancti Spíritus, Camagüey, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and the outskirts of Havana.

“At first people were sceptical, but they have seen the major advantages of these latrines such as the fact that they don’t contaminate the wells near their houses,” said Parra. “Water quality has improved, according to studies carried out in the places where the latrines have been installed.”

The latrines have been so widely accepted that “CCSC-Lavastida doesn’t have the construction capacity, resources or staff to respond to all of the requests for dry toilets” through its projects, which provide the construction material and specialised labour power.

The organisation is now putting a priority on rural families without sanitation, who live near rivers and wells. And in the cities, it benefits families who have backyard gardens.

Of Cuba’s 11.2 million people, over 94 percent had improved sanitation services in 2012. The sewage system served 35.8 percent of the population, and 58.5 percent used septic tanks and latrines. But latrines contaminate nearby water sources with feces and urine, especially if they are poorly built or maintained.

According to the latest statistics provided by the National Water Resources Institute, 79.9 percent of the 2.5 million people living in rural areas have septic tanks or latrines, while 16.8 percent have no toilets at all.

Worldwide, 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation and over one billion still practice open defecation, according to the United Nations.

In eastern Cuba’s Sierra Maestra, the country’s biggest mountain chain, much of the local population lives in remote rural areas.

And drought plagues the eastern provinces of Las Tunas, Granma, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo, the least developed part of the country.

“Dry toilets don’t waste water,” said Demas Rodríguez, the pastor of the Baptist church in Babiney, who has been here for a decade. “They’re a new experience for us, so the church has the responsibility to teach the community how to use them, and to explain their benefits.”

After using the urine-separating dry composting toilet, the users sprinkle ash, sawdust or lime down the feces hole. The urine is collected in a different compartment, also to be used as fertiliser.

“By separating liquids and solids, we keep the smell down,” said Rodríguez while showing IPS the first composting latrine built in Babiney, in the home of the Figueredo-Cruz family.

“Another dry toilet has almost been completed, and four more local families are getting the materials together to make their own,” said Leonardo R. Espinoza, a builder from Babiney who has been installing dry composting latrines and biogas plants for the beneficiaries of CCSC-Lavastida’s projects.

“In terms of materials, building the dry latrines is expensive because you need at least one cubic metre of sand, 160 concrete blocks or 800 bricks, six sacks of cement and 14 metres of steel,” he said.

Based on the lowest prices for construction materials in Cuba, it costs at least 80 dollars to build a dry toilet – and more than that, if the toilet is tiled, to improve hygiene and appearance.

Using cement blocks and reinforced concrete, Espinoza built a 60-cm high feces collection compartment, which does not drain into the ground. “The total size is estimated based on the number of users of the toilet,” he said.

Dry composting latrines have a special toilet bowl with an internal division that separates urine from feces.

Cuba does not produce the toilet bowls. CCSC-Lavastida has imported them from Mexico. But now it has obtained a mould to make cheaper, sturdier bowls using concrete. If the user can afford it, the toilets can be covered with ceramic tiles.

“In houses with foundations elevated above ground, the dry toilet can be installed inside, to facilitate access by the elderly or the disabled,” said Espinoza. “But in general they are built outside the house, and you climb up four steps to use the toilet.”

Other designs include a shower next to the toilet.

Marislennys Hernández, a 32-year-old farmer, had never heard of dry toilets until she joined the permaculture movement. She and her husband Leonel Sánchez work a 32-hectare ecological farm, La Cristina, in the rural area of El Castillito in the province of Santiago de Cuba.

“For us it’s been a really good thing because it doesn’t pollute, it saves a lot of water, and it provides us with natural fertiliser,” she told IPS.

“Three years ago we managed to build [the ecological toilet] in our house,” she said. “They should be promoted more among the rural population.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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