By Joel Veenstra

As part of MIT’s D-Lab Cambodia trek, Jeff and I have spent time with IDE in rural Cambodia to survey latrine use and emptying habits. Around Phnom Penh, a high percentage of the population owns or shares a latrine. As the campaign against open defecation gains traction, we are now able to examine another piece of the sanitation ecosystem that Sanergy has begun to tackle in Kenya: How can people get rid of the waste after their latrines fill up?

Jeff discusses sanitation with local latrine user.

Once your latrine fills, you have two primary options: First, you could empty the pit bucket by bucket into a nearby field or river. Clearly, these options result in most of the same public health and environmental consequences as open defecation. Additionally, it’s a dirty business that is looked down upon. The second option is cleaner, quicker, and has the potential to be much more health- and eco-friendly: pump trucks.

Trucks are able to access most latrines in rural and urban Cambodia, but at $30 per latrine, the service is often prohibitively expensive. In our interviews, most people noted that they would prefer to have their latrine pumped instead of performing the filthy and embarrassing task. However, many had no idea where their waste was dumped, and some even asked pumpers to keep the waste for their fields.

The prevailing idea seems to be that raw sewage is good for your rice … but smells bad. Although latrine owners seem aware of health repercussions, those issues do not influence their decisions. A local pumper we call Sammy has dug a giant hole into which he empties his load, but he won’t hesitate to help “fertilize” a field if asked. One inventive latrine owner had even developed a mixture of shampoo and gasoline to mix with his waste. “Now it doesn’t smell.” Problem solved.

With the majority of truck drivers emptying into fields or water sources, they have basically improved service without doing anything to remediate the health and environmental dangers. But the potential is there. We met one man who is working with an NGO to process the latrine waste and sell it as fertilizer, a product much in demand here, just as in Kenya. He allows drivers to dump their waste in his facilities for free, though other pumpers have so far refused to do so, citing gas prices as an insurmountable barrier.

At Sanergy, we know toilets are a necessary but not sufficient ingredient to solve the sanitation crisis. Just as Sanergy is working with communities in Nairobi to build a holistic sanitation system, our D-Lab team now must raise demand for hygienic latrine pumping practices. We hope to recommend a plan of action that, through a combination of marketing and incentives, increases demand both for pumping services and for sustainable and healthy pumping practices, so that those can edge out other less conscientious competitors.