“Flying toilets” are common in slums worldwide: Residents unable to reach a latrine due to crowding, distance or insecurity, defecate in a plastic bag and then sling it over the rooftops. But in Haiti, aid teams are testing a specially treated bag designed to turn human faeces into compost within weeks.
This is the first time the biodegradable single-use Peepoo bags are being tested in a post-disaster humanitarian response, according to Andy Bastable, public health engineering coordinator with Oxfam, which is evaluating the product at settlements of displaced people in the Delmas area of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
To date the Peepoo, which includes a chemical to break down waste for use as fertilizer, has been used in slum areas in Bangladesh and Kenya. Critics of the approach say by itself it does not resolve issues of privacy or hand-washing – essential in sanitation solutions – and there is no consumer incentive to use the bag.
An NGO project director working in urban sanitation who preferred anonymity said while the potential benefits are there in general public health terms, for the individual who can use any plastic bag for free it makes no difference.
The aid worker, whose work includes sanitation interventions in Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera, said the product was “a lovely idea” but “a bit of a joke”.
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But he said it might be useful in a post-conflict or post-disaster temporary settlement, where it could be integrated into camp management, though experts would want to see the results of a “rigorous evaluation”.
Few sanitation options
At some sites where displaced people are living in Port-au-Prince, pit latrines commonly used in post-emergency situations are not feasible because of concrete or tarmac surfaces, a high water table or landowners prohibiting the digging, Oxfam’s Bastable told IRIN. One option in such settings is raised latrines, but US$20 per day per toilet to desludge gets quite expensive, and truck access to many of the sites is difficult, he said.
At one camp on a rubbish dump, International Rescue Committee workers dug nearly two metres and found no soil – only compacted garbage, said IRC’s Melissa Winkler.
Oxfam’s Bastable said: “We started thinking – what has been people’s sanitation practice before? Can we take what they do normally, systematize it and make it safer?”
For many in Port-au-Prince the odour-neutralizing bags, with gender-segregated stalls, hand-washing stations and bins regularly emptied by aid workers, are an improvement. Sanitation conditions were poor in Port-au-Prince before the 12 January earthquake and many people defecated in plastic bags, dumping them wherever they could.
Haiti is one of the few countries in the world where sanitation coverage for urban dwellers decreased between 1990 and 2006, according to the UN Children’s Fund and World Health Organization.
Wilna Sinvry, 42, lives with her two children at the Delmas 31 camp, where residents received pictorial instructions on how to use and dispose of the bags. “Before the earthquake I would usually go in a black plastic bag and I would have to wake up at four in the morning to dump it in a ravine.”
Camilla Wirseen, Peepoo project director and one of the founders, said while Haiti is no longer in the initial response phase, Peepoo trials in Port-au-Prince will give useful information about the viability of the method in disaster response settings.
“It is a toilet we’re talking about, but it is also an entire sanitation system,” she told IRIN. “In disaster response situations, how would the bags be distributed, for example – airdropped if need be? With accompanying containers or without? How would collection happen? If it is a difficult to access area, could we dig a hole for disposing of the bags?”
Oxfam is finalizing its evaluation report, according to the NGO’s Deepa Patel in Port-au-Prince. Recommendations include that storage requirements (such as temperature) must be spelled out and there should be a further study of cost effectiveness.
Oxfam and the NGO SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) are also piloting compost toilets and other “ecological sanitation” techniques in Haiti.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]