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Sanitation for Cambodians afloat

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18 August 2011 16:39

Judy Hagan was the EWBA's Project Manager of the Tonle Sap Floating Toilet Project in Cambodia in 2008 and 2009. This post is part of the New Voices series.

On a wall at a local NGO in Noakhali District of Bangladesh earlier this year, I was struck by the following declaration: 'Communities become effective and pro-active problem solvers with assistance from responsive local support structures.'

Indeed. How many of the solutions to developmental barriers can be found by the communities themselves if they are given the opportunity? Working within this concept of community empowerment is a small project in Cambodia that is aiming to solve the age-old challenge of sanitation for the Tonle Sap Lake's floating communities.

Traditional sanitation removes faeces from the environment by piping sewerage away from communities for treatment or storing faeces in fly-proof pits until the pathogens are dead. Neither piping nor pits are applicable to movable floating houses, and no other affordable solutions have been developed. Yet there are 1.4-2.2 million people living in floating or similarly challenging environments in Cambodia alone.

In floating communities, you defecate directly into the water around your home, or out over the edge of boats – regardless of your health or age. The same water in which poo is floating and dissipating is then used for bathing, washing food and dishes, swimming and transport, and sometimes for drinking.

Tonle Sap Floating Latrine Project has been working with local staff and communities since 2008 to adapt global technical knowledge to the floating communities in order to develop a new sanitation system.

The approach taken was for the communities to inform the design of the toilet. Existing and preferred sanitation practices (wiping vs washing, squatting vs sitting) were examined. Focus groups informed major aspects of the toilet design and the treatment system to ensure it suited the living environment. This process led to an above-floor toilet design that would not be battered by the lake's waves, and treatment and reuse of faecal matter on a local barge (rather than delivering it to dry land at high fuel cost). 

The toilets themselves were designed to be affordable by households, and community storage infrastructure to be replicable at a local government level. Locally available materials and techniques were used exclusively, to keep costs at a minimum and ensure the technology could always be accessed locally. 

And the design? A three-hole urine diversion desiccation toilet supported by a floating storage barge with community garden. 

The three holes have three functions. Urine collects in the front basin and is diverted to the lake or is collected as fertiliser. Faeces fall through a central hole into a bucket, to which ash is added to treat the faeces and prevent smell and flies. Anal washing and menstrual hygiene washing can occur over the back basin. 

Sanitation is very sex specific, so the project's engagement process with both women and men led to the design meeting women's menstrual hygiene needs, and also led to the development of affordable urinals for boys in schools. When the faeces bucket is 3/4 full it is taken to the community barge for storage, and after approximately six months the material can become mulch for the community garden and used to grow vegetables.

This is a small project which reminds us that small scale, community-centred development practice can empower communities.

Photo by Flickr user archer10.

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