The 5th December is World Soil Day, an annual global observance dedicated to raising awareness for one of the earth’s most important reserves. Soil is a finite resource that is fundamental to human livelihoods, yet all over the world its condition is declining at an alarming rate. Indeed, according to a recent UN-backed study, one third of the planet’s soil is now severely degraded. In fact, so serious is the situation, that the UN has predicted we may only have 60 years of harvest left. If we acknowledge that sustainability must be at the heart of global development, the ways in which we treat and utilise this valuable resource must be re-evaluated.

Importantly, World Soil Day also provides an opportunity to consider the possibilities of sustainable soil practices in relation to another global crisis: sanitation. Astonishingly, we do not have a sustainable global sanitation system. At least 2 billion people around the globe use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces, whilst 2.3 billion people do not have access to basic toilet facilities.

The link between these two crises may not, at first, seem self-evident but, in reality, the status of the world’s soil, food security and sanitation are inextricably linked. Ecosan toilet technology would go a long way towards providing a solution to both; meeting the human need to avoid contact with their waste, whilst simultaneously nourishing our soil, without the use of harsh chemicals.

Pit Latrines and the Western Style Flush System

Two main sanitation systems are used by the majority of the world’s population: pit latrines and the Western style flush system. Both of these systems, however, have significant drawbacks and, for a number of significant reasons, do not represent viable solutions to the aforementioned crises.

Pit latrines are perhaps the simplest means of disposing of human waste. A well-executed and maintained pit latrine is certainly much better than nothing but there are several serious risk factors to this system. If groundwater rises above the bottom of the pit, harmful microorganisms from the human faecal sludge can mix with the water table, contaminating the water source and rendering it harmful. With no standardised waste disposal system, many pit latrines are simply abandoned when they become full. What’s more, they are also prone to collapse and the sludge that builds up within the latrines can become a breeding ground for mosquitos.

The Western style flush system is thought of as the only ‘civilised’ solution; a modern, clean, flush-and-forget solution that distances us from our waste.  But it is not the answer; if all of the 2.3 billion people without a toilet started to use this method, the world would be faced with a different but equally serious problem. Using up to six gallons of water for each use, flush-based systems are unfeasible for thousands of communities with limited or no access to water. Furthermore, once the waste has entered into a larger sewer system, it requires a costly process to make it safe. Unbelievably, over 80% of this untreated waste is discharged into the environment, creating public health risks and having catastrophic impacts on local ecosystems.

Ecosan Toilet Technology

Ecosan, on the other hand, is a sanitation system that supports, instead of violates, the natural cyclic substance flows of nature. It is a closed loop system; a continual process that connects people to the soil that lies beneath their feet and provides them with food. In this way, it presents a viable alternative to pit latrines and water flush toilets, that supports the environment, its resources and human lives. Significantly, it also re-establishes the connection between the human cycle of life and the soil’s cycle of life, offering an alternative model in which these systems co-operate and, thus, a viable solution to the soil and sanitation crises being faced.

Ecosan is a new way of thinking that questions the assumptions of past methods. It redefines human ‘waste’ as a valuable resource; a vital resource for life, as well as a fundamental part of the sanitation system. It seems inconceivable that we spend large sums of money and use excessive amounts of water in our attempts to remove what we have deemed ‘waste’ from our immediate environment, when all the while, this waste could be instrumental in creating an ecological and sustainable world. We must think about this vital relationship between humanity and the earth that sustains us, when considering global sanitation plans.

We find it fascinating that, in the course of a year, the number of nutrients excreted by the average adult is equal to the number of nutrients the soil needs to produce the amount of grain needed to sustain that same adult. Can this really be a coincidence? Or is it part of Mother Nature’s grand plan to provide us with the means to live in a sustainable, holistic way? If so, we have ignored her for far too long. Although this concept may seem too idealistic to roll out on a large scale, it is an ancient, tried and tested way of life that has been used for centuries, and by many communities.

Importantly, neither of two main sanitation methods are based on such a closed loop system, nor are they founded upon natural, ecological cycles. The nutrient loop remains open; human waste is not recycled back into the soil and does not enter the cycle. When we know that soil can utilise this ‘waste’ to produce more and better food, doesn’t it feel counterintuitive to be spending money to dispose of it?

Modern Farming and Soil Depletion

The world’s soil is being depleted of nutrients at more than 13% the rate it can be replaced. Modern farming methods are contributing to this because of their dependence on chemical fertilisers, which increase the supply of essential nutrients into the soil by replacing nutrients that have been lost. While doing so, chemical fertilisers destroy critical soil microbes, saturate farmlands and contribute towards the depletion of the land.

Chemical fertilisation is ultimately unsustainable as it is a process that repairs depleted soil, as opposed to providing renewable nourishment. What is even more worrying is the excessive amounts of fertiliser currently being used in an attempt to cater for the growing global demand for food. The overuse of fertiliser can, in many cases, lead to eutrophication. Organic farming methods, on the other hand, naturally prevent soil depletion and support its structure, without polluting the air or waterways, as chemical fertilisers do.

Sustainability should be at the heart of modern agriculture. Our human ‘waste’ is rich in phosphorous, potassium and organic matter, which are all beneficial to soil. Ecosan could create a system where soil could be maintained at a healthy level so that fertilisers are no longer needed to repair any nutrient loss. As well as providing a sustainable solution to help address the global sanitation crisis, ecosan could also improve the quality of the world’s soils, thereby benefiting the environment and the human population through viable, renewable means.

The Solution

If we consider sanitation to be a system that has, hitherto, been poorly managed, we can agree that this system is in need of a dramatic overhaul. The consequences of not taking such action would be devastating. Indeed, if these badly managed systems persist, the quality of our soil will continue to deplete, food shortages will be inevitable, many more thousands of people will die from contaminated water, and we will continue to incessantly waste and corrupt life-saving resources.

The global population is growing exponentially, so if we do not inspire a substantial change, an ever-increasing number of people will be living in an unhealthy, unsustainable world.

Recognising the urgency of alternative sanitation systems such as ecosan will enable the vital connection between the human population and our soil to thrive.

 

 

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