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"Floating toilets" offer hope for river communities

Thousands make a living by rice cultivation, and many more live in floating villages on the Mekong River and Tonle Sap
(Tharum Bun/IRIN)

A toilet now in the development stage could improve the health of thousands living in Cambodia’s impoverished river communities.

River communities’ homes are typically built on floating platforms and moved seasonally, and rarely have proper latrines. Occupants use the river – the same water they use for drinking, cooking and washing.

The health risks are high: according to Resource Development International–Cambodia, a faith-based NGO, 74 percent of all deaths are due to waterborne diseases, including diarrhoea.

Cambodia has one of the highest infant and under-five mortality rates in the region, at 97 and 141 per 1,000 live births, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports.

Many rural Cambodians see latrines as filthy, preferring open defecation as being more natural.

“It’s not a poverty issue. Some wealthy people in the countryside don’t have good sanitation, and some poor families do have it,” Chea Samnan, director of rural healthcare for the Ministry of Rural Development, said. “It’s an issue of access to the right information.”

As part of its "River of Life" profect, Lien Aid, a Singaporean-based NGO, is working on what it describes as a “floating toilet”. The toilets - built on floating platforms and attached to homes – will effectively prevent faeces from entering the water.

“We are still in the preliminary stages of testing out the prototypes,” Sahari Ani, Lien Aid’s head, told IRIN.

Eco-sanitation design

The device has three components - a superstructure, a urine diversion pan, and a space for a removable bucket or container for waste material.

Central to the design is the pan itself, effectively separating urine from faeces. A separate section of the pan allows for anal washing.

Materials such as dry soil, ash and wood chips can be added to excreta, thereby reducing odour and pathogens, while cutting the volume of waste.

The semi-decomposed faeces is then treated at a secondary storage chamber for complete decomposition and pathogen destruction, while the nutrient-heavy urine could be used as fertilizer after removal.

Commenting on the merits of the pan, Judy Hagan, project manager of a different operator, the Tonle Sap Floating Latrine Design Project, said separating the two waste materials reduced the bulk and mass of the faeces that needed to be treated, making it more viable in a floating environment.

A side of the urine diversion pan. The hole on the far right is for urine, the middle for feces and the third for anal washing

Lien Aid
A side of the urine diversion pan. The hole on the far right is for urine, the middle for feces and the third for anal washing
Thursday, July 9, 2009
"Floating toilets" offer hope for river communities...
A side of the urine diversion pan. The hole on the far right is for urine, the middle for feces and the third for anal washing

Photo: Lien Aid
A sideview of the urine diversion pan. The hole on the far right is for urine, the middle for feces and the third for anal washing

Key challenges

But introducing such concepts in a country like Cambodia will not be easy.

As floating river communities exist only in Cambodia and a handful of other Asian nations, latrines designed specifically for their needs are rare and expensive.

Added to this is the country’s lack of qualified engineers, poor sanitation infrastructure and low level of hygiene awareness.

“The more difficult challenge is to help the community build up the human resources necessary to make the venture financially sustainable over the long term,” Sahari Ani said.

According to the World Bank, only 16 percent of rural Cambodians have a proper toilet, the lowest level in Southeast Asia.

Moreover, despite the country’s abundant freshwater rivers and lakes, 60 percent of its population do not have access to safe water and 85 percent are without adequate sanitation, Lien Aid stated.

Cost effectiveness

While an exact price for the device is still being determined, the NGO hopes costs can be kept to a minimum, with families possibly purchasing building material in bulk to keep down costs.

One-third of Cambodians live on less than US$0.50 a day, according to government statistics, making cost a significant factor.

“We will still try to keep costs down by exploring the use of [local] materials and by encouraging local entrepreneurs to manufacture the required parts,” Lien Aid’s head explained.

Although fairly new, villagers in Cambodia have already been learning how to construct cheaper latrines for as little as $15 each from the community-led total sanitation programme, started in 2005 by UNICEF and Cambodia’s Ministry of Rural Development.

And while not of the floating toilet type, the self-built, cost-effective latrines could provide further impetus to the floating toilet prototype once their use becomes more widespread.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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