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Eco-san toilet bowls make its mark in the Philippines

The ecological sanitation system urine diverting dry toilet (UDDT) or eco-san bowls for short was a project started in 2003 by Center for Advanced Philippine Studies (CAPS). This was a poverty alleviation program under the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) whose objective was to propagate eco-san in areas where water supply is a problem.

The eco-san bowls, widely used in China, Mexico, Nepal, South Africa and Sweden, hit the Philippines to replace the flush-type toilets and to “prevent pollution and disease caused by human excreta.

“Don’t mix”

Dan Lapid, executive director of CAPS, said the eco-san approach is very simple. It is a waste segregation principle anchored on the “don't mix” approach which is applied on human waste.

The eco-san bowl has two holes that separate the urine from the human excreta. Once fell on the ground, these go into two separate containers. The excreta and the urine are then transferred on designated storage areas. There is no need for a household to build a septic tank, as supply of ash is required to cover the excreta.

Based on the findings of CAPS, the human excreta can be stored from 6 to 12 months while the urine, high in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) and with proper mix of water, at four weeks before it can be applied one month before harvest time.

“But not all would welcome the eco-san approach,” averred Dan Lapid, enumerating the required preparations leading to it.

On top of all, are rigid series of orientation for the beneficiaries and local government officials. The seminars are focused on changes in attitude, sanitation habits and views regarding human excreta. Lapid said everyone has gotten used to the 'flush-and-forget' style that the eco-san may not be a welcome thing.

He stressed that a major component of the orientation is to develop a change in attitude toward one’s human excreta.

At that time, Lapid reported the eco-san success story of San Fernando City, La Union. Mayor Mary Jane Ortega initiated eco-san to her constituents after she learned of it through files of winning non-government organization projects.

The mayor, known for her pro-environment stand, inquired about the project and asked CAPS to bring in some eco-san bowls to the city. She said she would install them in areas where communities are not dependent on water supply.

Intensive seminars ensued after the mayor’s inquiry and by the end of the orientation, 400 eco-san bowls were installed in the city's urban poor and coastal areas.

Lapid recalled the people’s initial reaction was rejection. “They were not used to the smell of human excreta. Thus, they all wanted led to avoid the toilets which were delivered in their areas.”

But governance in San Fernando was something this city was proud of. Its locals have that sprinkling of complete trust on their mayor that did not take long to shed their apprehensions on the new approach. They adapted the re-use of human excreta, and when they did, the rural population used it on their farms; the coastal folk applied the mix on their vegetables, while upland dwellers used the water-urine mix on their gardens.

Commercial lowdown

Frankly, commercial toilet bowl manufacturers are not enthusiastic in making eco-san bowls even if it was stressed that this would be on top of the standards. The random interviews with standard bowl manufacturers stressed only one thing --- absence of niche market in the urban areas. It did not help to say that they would be pushing for advocacy to help the environment, as preoccupation was solely on revenues.

At that time, Wisdom Ceramics based in Antipolo, teamed up with CAPS for the manufacturing of the eco-san bowls because it wanted to help the country reduce its dependence on imported inputs and technology. Wisdom accepted the offer because it knew it would discover a new path to development in similar passion it could help boost the eco-san approach.

Asked how the eco-san bowls wound to north Luzon, and Lapid said it was through word-of-mouth that got them here.

But two years ago, the turnouts were impressive for the record: 50 eco-san bowls delivered in Sorsogon City; 80 in Anda, Pangasinan; 150, Bais City; and 80, Negros Oriental, with probable presence in Mindanao.

But these bowl types, however, are not on display in usual ceramics outlets. CAPS always makes a cautious move on preferences of “sophisticated” urban minds that has a mindset of its own regarding toilet bowls. And Lapid is quite frank when he reiterated that they do not initiate deals with people who own standard toilet bowls. Bentahan ka namin baka tawanan mo lang kami (You will laugh at us if we sell eco-san bowls to you).”

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Comment by Peter Matthews on August 2, 2009 at 12:04
This is a well told and important story.

I believe that systems like Eco San need to be developed urgently on a global scale, in all countries.

Cultural resistance is a real issue, as described here. I believe the problems of smell and handling can be solved if ecological toilet systems are integrated with the provision of ash, charcoal, leaves and other organic materials for co-deposition with urine and excrement, and collection services to distribute the resulting fertiliser, and if the fertiliser is applied not primarily to ground-crop production (root crops, cereal crops, vegetables, etc.) but to (1) agroforestry areas, where tree crops and non-food crops (e.g. Pandanus in the Philippines) predominate, and (2) soil restoration and development in eroded or exposed land surfaces.

If commercial companies providing low-cost, highly-efficient toilets could integrate all the associated services in a vertical company structure, then their profit margins might be much better than the overall margins for conventional modern sewage systems, where infrastructure costs and nutrient wastage are maximized.

Conventional modern systems can only exist because taxpayers pay for non-profitable components, and let commercial operators concentrate on the profitable components. They are not properly costed as social services.

Peter (speaking as a professional botanist and amateur economist)


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