It’s been eight months since I wrote about the Indian Railways’ toilets and dove deep into the world of fecal sludge. This week my investigations continue at World Water Week in Stockholm, where I’m mingling, slightly daunted, with the who’s who of water and sanitation: experts, researchers, NGOs, international agencies, funders, activists, government representatives, private sector players, and the winner of the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize!

Amidst all the attendants, it was nice to spot a familiar face in Sanjay Banka from Banka BioLoos. I last spoke to Mr. Banka when I was reporting on his company’s biogas digester toilets that are being deployed in India’s trains as part of Swachh Bharat mandates to end open defecation by 2019.

Meeting him got me thinking about how middle-class urban Indians are so limited in our knowledge of toilets. The average city-dwelling Indian thinks that toilets are of two kinds: Western style commodes and squat toilets. I don’t think we realize they’re essentially the same because of where the sludge goes. We’re privileged to have flush toilets that send waste into sewers or septic tanks, and few of us know or care about what happens after that.

Unaware as we might be, there is demand for toilet innovation in India. Banka told me that in their four years of operation they’ve assembled and installed 4,000 biotoilets, not only on the trains but also in factories, schools, and individual family homes. And if the water discharge — rich in nitrates — is collected and used to water gardens, it yields lush herbage.

Where there is no sewage treatment plant, toilets that help contain and manage the process of breaking down solid and liquid waste into gas and grey water seem like a silver bullet solution. Especially because they reduce the risk of contamination. I spoke with two other people, both working in Africa, who agree, each at the conference to look for partners to help deploy their very different technologies.

The first is Brazilian Samuel Dourado who works with the NGO Give Love in Africa. Following a successful pilot in Nicaragua, last year they set up compost based toilets in Uganda and have even introduced them in the state of Odisha. They start by closing up old pits and latrines and installing a bucket toilet in its place. Urine and feces are not segregated, but after each use, the excrement is covered with a carbon-rich material like sawdust or leaves. No flushing, no pipes. But yes to a four-pit composting system outside, made with local material: wood panels and wire mesh (to keep the oxygen flowing). In a school, the buckets have a 60L capacity and in Dourado’s home the toilet can hold 20L.

Photograph: Give Love
Photograph: GiveLove

About once a week, the contents are transferred to the pit, where residents are encouraged to add household wet waste to it. The thermophilic bacteria in the fecal matter takes a year to yield nutrient-rich fertilizer, Dourado explained, and the temperature is monitored so it stays around 100 degrees Celsius. (If it’s raining, a temporary roof is put up.) Each pit is used for three months and then left to its own devices for another nine months. One year later, voila! You can fertilize your crops or sell the compost. “We don’t call it waste,” Dourado explains, “because it’s useful. If, after this, you’re still calling it waste, you don’t understand that it’s valuable.”

The second is Till Hollinger of MoSan, who I spotted carrying around a mini toilet pot that I just had to know more about. The model he’s carting, tucked under one arm, is 60% of the actual toilet’s size, which is still pretty small. It’s a mobile urine-diverting dry toilet meant for densely populated settlements – like slums, or refugee camps. “Or if there’s a disaster – hurricane, earthquake, and you need some solution so people aren’t defecating or urinating into the water they have to drink,” he says.

MoSan toilet. Photograph: Chhavi Sachdev

The toilet is self-contained with two holes and two chambers to separate feces from urine (“Aiming takes a bit of practice,” Hollinger says.) A little ash sprinkled in the fecal container plus a lid take care of the smell. The lightweight containers can be carried and emptied easily. They’re already in Bangladesh and Kenya, where they are not only in community loos, but also in individual homes – private, safe, and accessible any time. MoSan only does the technology, supply and training, but they’re pushing for people to step in and close the loop, something experts think is bound to happen — where there’s money to be made, entrepreneurs will follow. The manufacturers suggest that transporting fecal sludge to then compost it or make into fuel-briquettes could be lucrative.

India is busy building toilets, but, as we know, just constructing the physical latrines is not going to end open defecation – many people continue to prefer the open fields, using their brand new loos as a safe house for valuables and livestock. Much needs to be done to make them a part of daily life. Dourado says “living the change” is important to convince users on the ground that it’s worth using – a challenge that many at the conference will return to on Monday morning.