_Ecological Engineering
_Case Studies
_About IEES
_Activities of IEES

Lost Password?
Dry toilets in Mexico - a field visit Print
fig_lead_sarar.jpgA lot of people in Mexico, especially in rural areas, do not have access to basic sanitation. There are pit latrines or rudimentary flush toilets, which do not solve the problem but rather create new ones. Poor hygiene generates disease, deep latrines contaminate groundwater, and inadequate flush systems discharge wastewater into underground water sources, rivers and lakes. Therefore simple, affordable and ecological solutions are required.

By Beat Stauffer, Switzerland

Eco boom
During the last few years, a good deal of effort to improve sanitation has been made in Mexico, especially in tourist areas. In famous places, such as Puerto Escondido (Pacific Coast) or Tulum (Caribbean), everything is "ECO". It is possible to book all kinds of eco-tours, eco-hotels, eco-bird-watching and many more "ECO" activities. It is obvious that people have started to think green, as all over the world. But does it really work? To ensure that an eco-concept functions correctly, it needs careful strategic planning and, of course, periodical monitoring.

Dry toilets
An important step to avoid contamination of water and disease is improving sanitation. Furthermore, important nutrients can be reused and 'close the loop'. One solution is the dry or urine-diverting toilet. A special toilet bowl makes it possible to separate urine and faeces (Fig. 1). After a certain storage time, urine can be reused as liquid fertilizer and faeces as compost earth. Although it sounds very simple, serious maintenance must be guaranteed to avoid the numerous problems which could develop and endanger the health of users.

 Fig. 1: Dry toilet at the office of Sarar-T. Photo: B. Stauffer

Sadly, there are many problems in Mexico with eco-sanitation, and especially dry toilets. A number of different reasons prevent the successful development and functioning of eco-toilets.

One of the main reasons that many dry-toilet programs fail is the poor planning and implementation of the projects. The construction of buildings is very often the only focus of a project. Typically, governmental organisations come to a (tourist) area, build the toilets and leave, without instructing any persons responsible for the toilets on their proper use and maintenance. Local people as well as visitors do not understand the function and use of the eco-toilet systems. Tourists from Europe or the United States who are familiar with the common flush-toilet system have no idea how to use it. The consequence of this mismanagement is unhygienic, malodorous and dirty toilets. Nutrients will not be reused and the conditions for flies, mosquitoes and other insects are ideal.

One particular example of this can be seen in Tulum, in the state of Quintana Roo (Caribbean). This area is very famous for its underwater caves, which many snorkelers and scuba divers explore. One of them is called "Dos Ojos", a very impressive and beautiful attraction. As mentioned above, the eco-boom in Mexico can be seen everywhere and "Dos Ojos" is no exception.

For sustainable sanitation management, a urine-diverting toilet was built in the "Dos Ojos" park but, unfortunately, almost everything concerning this toilet has been set up incorrectly. First of all, it is a huge construction, which needed a good deal of building material. Furthermore, maintenance is poor and the toilet smells of urine. In addition, there are no instructions on how to use the eco-toilet, so no tourist actually knows how it functions. But the greatest problem is the "handling" of the urine and faeces. Urine flows out through pipes behind the toilet and drains away into the soil (Fig. 2). The composting of the faeces also takes place in the back area. It is simply a large pile, poorly covered with sawdust (Fig. 3).

 Fig. 2: Outflow of urine from an "Eco"-toilet, Tulum, Mexico. Photo: B. Stauffer.
 Fig 3: Faeces pile covered with saw dust, Tulum, Mexico. Photo: B. Stauffer

It is sad to see these good ideas turned into failed projects. A Mexican organization which is trying to improve the situation with effective management and long-term projects is Sarar Transformación.

Solutions (Sarar-T)
Sarar Transformación [1] is one of the most experienced organisations [regarding ecological sanitation] in Latin America and is located in Tepoztlán, Morelos. Sarar-T has been working for over 12 years in the water and ecological sanitation sector and has cultivated a large network of organisations and institutions in Europe, North America and, of course, in Latin America (e.g. WWF-Mexico [2], EcoSanRes Sweden [3], Global Water Challenge [4]). They have made several important steps towards the successful implementation of projects.

The employees of Sarar-T are a mixture of different experts, such as ecologists, architects, biologists and sociologists. Building infrastructure like toilets, bio-filters (for onsite greywater treatment and reuse) or similar constructions is only a small part of their work. The larger part consists of the courses and workshops they give on how to handle faeces, promote hygiene habits, the social aspects of eco-sanitation, and the education of the local people, especially in rural areas (Fig. 4 & 5).

Fig 4: Workshop in the mountains of Oaxaca during the SWASH project of Sarat-T [5]. Photo: Beat Stauffer
Fig. 5: International course on Sanitation, organized by Sarar-T [6].
Photo: Beat Stauffer

Many things which seem self-evident for a European are difficult to understand for these people (e.g. garbage separation, decomposition of organic and inorganic materials, and the importance of washing hands). The workshop exercises are very simple but, if there is no culture of hygiene, it is not easy for these people to see the problems that can arise with inappropriately disposed faeces or contaminated water.

As one can see, much more work is needed. Patience and solid organisation are essential to these projects. A lot of work, including education, needs to be done to raise the standard of sanitation in Mexico.

The author
bs.jpgBeat Stauffer is a student of Environmental Engineering at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Wädenswil [7], Switzerland. Students at the Institute of Natural Resource Sciences have the opportunity of an internship for at least three months in a developing or emerging country during the 5th or 6th semester. During his six months in Mexico, from fall 2009 to early spring 2010, Beat worked for four months as a volunteer with Sarar-T and travelled round several states in South-Mexico for approximately two months.

Contact: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


[1] www.sarar-t.org
[2] www.wwf.org.mx
[3] www.ecosanres.org
[4] www.globalwaterchallenge.org
[5] www.globalwaterchallenge.org/programs/projects-detail.php?id=901
[6] http://www.sarar-t.org/portal/III%20CURSO%20INTERNACIONAL.pdf
[7] www.iunr.zhaw.ch/en/science/iunr.html

Last Updated ( Friday, 02 July 2010 )
News from IEES