Villagers Grow Bumper Crops From the Bottom Up
NEPAL – Let’s not mince words. This is a story about urine and feces, and how the Ridgway-based dZi Foundation is helping underserved communities in remote regions of the Himalaya separate one from the other in order to enhance food security, provide more varied diets, and increase sustainable market opportunities that directly address poverty in the region.
Once you get over the “ick factor,” it’s a brilliant concept. Statistically, the average family of six produces up to 84 liters of urine in a single week. This liquid gold is packed with nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous – the major components of chemical fertilizers – that plants crave and eagerly absorb. As a bonus, urine repels insect pests such as aphids that damage tender leaves.
Urine is also sterile, so long as it does not get contaminated by, say, fecal matter.
So when the residents of Sotang, a village in Nepal’s northeastern district of Solukhumbu, approached the dZi Foundation with a proposal to build a toilet for every household – 1,186 in all – over a three-year period from 2011-2013, dZi gave the villagers a choice.
Each family got to choose between an outhouse with a traditional Asian squat toilet where all human waste is washed into a single earthen cavity and an outhouse with a new ecosan toilet.
The ecosan model (short for Ecological Sanitation, a buzzword among development organizations) offers a squat toilet pan with an angled dual track system that separates urine from solid waste. It’s not rocket science: All you have to do is aim toward a smaller hole in the front of the toilet pan to urinate and position yourself over a larger hole in back to empty your bowels. The urine flows into a holding tank, and the poop gets washed with water into the earthen cavity.
The captured urine can then be used as fertilizer.
It’s an old idea whose time has come around again with new scientific research on the matter, with several recent projects worldwide promoting the application of urine in agriculture – from a carp fish farm in West Bengal, India to a massive toilet diversion project in Sweden. This project, however, marks the first time that the ecosan concept has been methodically introduced in a rural agricultural setting in the developing world.
FERTILE GROUND FOR A PILOT PROJECT
To say that the landscape of Solukhumbu is rugged is an understatement; its villages are so remote, they can only be reached by trudging on foot, in and out of river drainages, and up and down the steeply wrinkled flanks of the Himalaya. It is not uncommon for villagers to tackle 4,000 to 9,000 feet of elevation gain and loss in a single day’s perambulations.
“It can be insanely steep,” said Jim Nowak, the co-founder of the dZi Foundation, who travels to the region from his home in Ridgway every year to keep tabs on the work that dZi is doing there. “It’s a very challenging area to walk around. It’s like walking in and out of the Grand Canyon every day.”
Crops struggle in the region’s meager soil, but the Sotang soil became fertile ground, thanks to the dZi urine-as-fertilizer project. “These are all subsistence farmers,” Nowak said, of the Sotang farmers who work the land every day. “The per capita income is around $400 per year, and in our target areas, it is half that.
“It’s not an area that is easy to get to,” he added, “but there is a huge need, and they are incredibly motivated people.”
So motivated, in fact, that quite a few of Sotang's farmers were willing to try something different (and even a little icky) to achieve bigger yields in their local fields and kitchen gardens.
The project was recently chronicled in an Environmental Health News article that saw wide redistribution, including in Scientific American.
The article recounts how in early 2011, the local Solukhumbu Development Society and the dZi Foundation organized a series of intensive training sessions for almost 150 farmers, teaching them about the wonders of urine and how to safely collect it and apply it to their crops. They then recruited a small handful of key farmers to try it out.
The strategy worked brilliantly.
“In the first year, we built 350 toilets, and 34 percent of the people that year selected ecosan,” Nowak said.
Come harvest time, the farmers who had converted to the new kind of toilet were flush with success. Photographs comparing crops to which urine had been applied and those without show a remarkable difference in the size and vitality of the plants. Those without urine appear shrunken, pale and weedy ,compared to their bodaciously green, human urine-nourished counterparts.
In the second year of project implementation, 65 percent of participating families went with ecosan toilets. In 2013, still more families are expected to try the new system.
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Nowak can’t hide his excitement when he talks about the project. “What is really fascinating is that the urine fertilizer produces more yield, but also stronger plants,” he said, in part because urine fosters rapid growth.
“Pests want to get after plants when they are young,” he said. “When the urine fertilizer is used, plants come out of the ground much faster, and the pests don’t have a chance to attack; the urine makes the plants stronger, faster.”
Ultimately, the urine fertilizer boosts crop yield, and farmers who have opted for the ecosan program are in some cases making twice as much money as before, from their fruit and vegetable crops. Some are even successfully experimenting with new crops, including chilli peppers, tomatoes, banana and guava.
The Environmental Health News article describes one adventurous farmer who grew $460 worth of tomatoes in a single growing season – double the average annual income in Sotang.
The folks at dZi weren’t just guessing about the merits of this project. “Way before we took this on, we hired an individual to do research, on our dime, about its viability,” Nowak said.
They also relied on data from the World Health Organization, which in 2006 laid out some basic guidelines on the safe use of wastewater and urine in agriculture. These guidelines spell out a series of so-called “behavioral barriers” to prevent fecal pathogens and bacteria from entering the food chain. The primary barrier is separating urine from feces at the source.
The collected urine then has to off-gas for 30 days and be diluted with water. The resulting potion is carefully applied to the soil around the plants, not to the plants themselves. It is preferably applied to crops that are going to be cooked before they are eaten.
To prevent the soil from becoming too salty or alkaline ,the urine fertilizer is used only three times per growing season.
It has also been successfully used with drip irrigation systems in a greenhouse setting.
The dZi Foundation seeks sustainable locally driven programs that improve quality of life through advancing education and health while reducing poverty. It focuses on infrastructure projects in five specific categories: schools, community centers, bridges, drinking water projects and sanitation, with the last of these categories by far the largest line item. To date, dZi and its local partners have spent over half-a-million dollars building outhouses in rural Nepal.
This was not a dZi choice. “It’s all self-determined by the communities,” Nowak explained.
It may seem surprising that the lowly outhouse is at the top of the wish list for many of these rural communities, but the bottom-up concept fits perfectly with dZi’s “scaffolding” approach to development work – one thing building upon another to reach big goals like sustainable agricultural income generation. The ecosan toilet phenomenon is a perfect example of the scaffolding concept: “What we call it is deep development,” Nowak said. “It has taken us awhile to get there. Over the years, we’ve decided to take a methodology that goes deep into areas and create deep sustainability, rather than having a super-thin presence in a big geographical area. It provides more lasting results.”
The Nepalese government requires international non-governmental organizations such as dZi to partner with local organizations on the ground.
However, Nowak said, “There is an ocean of difference between working with a partnering community and really embracing the concept. We lean to the side of really embracing it, because our model focuses on building community capacity.”
The key to the dZi Foundation’s success has been its commitment to nurturing these local partnerships. “We are not interested in parachuting in and leaving,” Nowak stressed. “We don’t have a silver bullet mentality that one project is going to create community-wide sustainability.”
Another thing that has made the dZi Foundation’s work so successful has been its emphasis on financial accountability, from the village to the IRS.
Over the years, dZi has developed a unique public audit system. Before dZi cuts the final check to its Nepalese NGO project partners for large infrastructure projects, there is a public reckoning. “Every bag of concrete, piece of roofing, labor contribution, everything, it’s all listed in a public spot,” Nowak explained. This transparency extends to the wages paid to skilled laborers such as masons and carpenters, and even to dZi field staff salaries.
Through this process, the villagers become accountable to one another down to the last slab of roofing material, and also gain a new respect and understanding for dZi’s contributions to their community’s well being.
“Many NGOs are perceived as enabling a very high lifestyle for the expats that live in Nepal,” Nowak said. “This accountability is one more way for villagers to realize we are working close to the ground, side by side with them. It shatters the perception that dZi Foundation employees are earning a huge amount of money. They are simply making a dignified wage. It’s all about transparency.”
To learn more about the dZi Foundation or to donate money to support its work, visit dzifoundation.org.
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