Let’s Talk Toilets

February 20th, 2014

As part of the University of Edinburgh’s International Development Week I was asked to take part in a Development Academy Loo Event which aimed to bring together students from architecture, engineering, and international development in a multi-disciplinary  workshop where they were challenged to come up with a sanitation solution to three different scenarios; a rural setting in arid farmland, an urban setting with densely crowded housing and a location where houses were built up on stilts above water.

The Practical Action technical brief Types of Toilet and Their Suitability that outlines some of the options available in low-cost toilet design was taken as a starting point and I highlighted a few issues that related to these designs and how they are implemented in practice, some of which is repeated here.

Stepped Improvement






The basic approach of Practical Action is to take people from a situation where we there is no sanitation to one where there is a stepped improvement on what has gone before. This goes hand in hand with improvements in terms of behaviour and in terms of facilities for washing as well as the catering for the waste management issues that part of improved toilet facilities.

Poor Quality Toilets

Although is some locations toilets exist they are in such a poor condition that they do not provide any health benefit. The examples shown below are all from Kenya. And you can see that the waste from the toilet flows into an open channel. This means that there are no benefit.


This is a poorly constructed corrugated toilet block with an open sewage channel in Kibara, an informal settlement (slum) in Nairobi, Kenya. It occupies about a square mile and is home to something like 700,000 people. Drainage consists of “natural” drainage channels formed in the paths and roads, which render the roads impassable during the rainy season; sanitation facilities are insufficient and waste disposal services do not exist. Sanitation is a huge problem.

Rural Toilets The situation for people in rural areas can be quite different to those in more urban areas and the issues faced when it comes to sanitation are particular to the location. The population will be low and dispersed over a greater area.  People can be in very remote locations a long way from any urban centre, possibly in a mountainous area   which makes transportation of materials and goods difficult.

Remote-ToiletThis photograph of a compost toilet in Peru highlights the remoteness of some homes. This project was managed by Practical Action Latin America (Soluciones Prácticas).

Types of Toilets

In rural areas basic toilets, variations on pit latrines, are common. Beyond open defecation, possibly the simplest approach, is the Arbour Loo (see Toilets That Make Compost by Peter Morgan http://developmentbookshop.com/toilets-that-make-compost.html or download at  http://www.ecosanres.org/pdf_files/ToiletsThatMakeCompost.pdf). This is a shallow hole which is filled relatively quickly, once it is full the toilet superstructure (the part above ground) is move to a newly dug hole. The old hole with its composting waste is used to cultivate a tree, hence the name of arbour loo.

Conventional pit latrines (See https://practicalaction.org/a-practical-guide-for-building-a-simple-pit-latrine) are common and are generally dug a little bit deeper. Ventilation Improved Pit Latrines have additional features which mean that flies are trapped within the toilet vent thus reducing the spread of disease.


This school in Kenya (left)  has installed ventilation improved toilets which have additional benefits in improved hygiene as flies become tripped within the toilet and die.

Compost-toilet-in-NepalThis compost toilet (right) is another of Practical Action’s projects. It is built in rural Nepal. Practical Acton has focused on constructing the chambers that are underground while the superstructure is built by the farmer from local materials.


Urban Toilets

Urban-mapUrban sanitation where there is no sewage systems such as the Kaptembwa and Rhonda estates in Nekuru, Kenya shown below have very densely packed housing which very few toilets. The main issue where the toilets do exist, most probably pit latrines, is that the waste has to be removed. In some places specialist equipment  might be used but too often it a full pit latrine has to emptied by hand


Types of Toilets

Bio-sanitationThere are a range of ways in which this is approached. The PeePoo is an approach where you use a single use bag. This then can be passed to a collection point. More conventional in some respects is a regular collection of waste from the home every day or every two or three days, the collection is made by workers who take the waste to a disposal centre. One example of this is the Clean Team Ghana. These approaches get round the problem of waste building up on site which can be an advantage in confined spaces. More common is intermittent emptying such as pit latrines but these need to be emptied in, sometimes this is done by hand when there is no alternative but there are designs for small scale machines such as a vacutug that are capable of getting into small spaces to extract the waste  (see Pit Emptying Systems). Pour flush toilets such as Aqua-privy and sceptic tanks also have their own advantages.

More advanced technologies such as bio-sanitation (see Bio-latrines ) can be used in certain locations if there is sufficient funds available. Here an underground biogas chamber is being constructed that will be part of the sanitation system. Then participants were set to design their best solution to a given sanitation problem. There was the dry rural setting, an urban setting and a high water setting. With Practical Action’s urban Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) work households and landlords are encourages to provide better sanitation through an approach of establishing a set of standard six toilet designs which ensures that people know what they are getting, the characteristics are well known and the costs can be accounted for by users and banks thus making is much easier to get a loan for installing a toilet. There are many other considerations that have not been covered here but should be taken into account such as high water tables, rocky conditions and other geological aspects. And then there are the considerations of design for disability which seems to be omitted in many projects

Making Toilets

Urinals-in-KenyaAs cost has to be kept to a minimum, then you need to determine what can be achieved with the available money.This example of a simple urinal is from a pilot ecosan facility in London (a suburb in Nakuru) through the ROSA (Resource Oriented Sanitation Options for Peri-urban Africa). While Practical Action has worked in partnership with ROSA (local consortium) Practical Action did not have any direct input in this facility. ROSA is managed through WASTE Netherlands and others. Transportation issues will also play a part.

 Here we see a few items being transported by rickshaw in Bangladesh.







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