Innovation of the Week: Providing an Agricultural Answer to Nature’s Call

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

It’s hard to believe, but an estimated 2.6 billion people in the developing world—nearly a third of the global population—still lack access to basic sanitation services. This presents a significant hygiene risk, especially in densely populated urban areas and slums where contaminated drinking water can spread disease rapidly. Every year, some 1.5 million children die from diarrhea caused by poor sanitation and hygiene.

It is in these crowded cities, too, that food security is weakened by the lack of clean, nutrient-rich soil as well as growing space available for local families.

But there is an inexpensive solution to both problems. A recent innovation, called the Peepoo, is a disposable bag that can be used once as a toilet and then buried in the ground. Urea crystals in the bag kill off disease-producing pathogens and break down the waste into fertilizer, simultaneously eliminating the sanitation risk and providing a benefit for urban gardens. After successful test runs in Kenya and India, the bags will be mass produced this summer and sold for U.S. 2–3 cents each, making them more accessible to those who will benefit from them the most.

In post-earthquake Haiti, where many poor and homeless residents are forced to live in garbage heaps and to relieve themselves wherever they can find privacy, SOIL/SOL, a non-profit working to improve soil and convert waste into a resource, is partnering with Oxfam GB to build indoor dry toilets for 25 families as well as four public dry toilets. The project will establish a waste composting site to convert dry waste into fertilizer and nutrient-rich soil that can then be used to grow vegetables in rooftop gardens and backyards.

In Malawi, Stacia and Kristof Nordin’s permaculture project (which Nourishing the Planet co-director Danielle Nierenberg visited during her tour of Africa) uses a composting toilet to fertilize the crops. Although these units can be expensive to purchase and install, one company, Rigel Technology, manufactures a toilet that costs just US$30 and separates solid from fluid waste, converting it into fertilizer. The Indian non-profit Sulabh International also promotes community units that convert methane from waste into biogas for cooking.

On a larger scale, wetlands outside of Calcutta, India, process some 600 million liters of raw sewage delivered from the city every day in 300 fish-producing ponds. These wetlands produce 13,000 tons of fish annually for consumption by the city’s 12 million inhabitants. They also serve as an environmentally sound waste treatment center, with hyacinths, algal blooms, and fish disposing of the waste, while also providing a home for migrating birds and an important source of local food for the population of Calcutta. (See also “Fish Production Reaches a Record.”)

Aside from cost and installation, the main obstacles to using human waste to fertilize crops are cultural and behavioral. UNICEF notes in an online case study that a government-run program in India provided 33 families in the village of Bahtarai with latrines near their houses. But the majority of villagers still preferred to use the fields as toilets, as they were accustomed to doing their whole lives. “It is not enough just to construct the toilets,” said Gaurav Dwivedi, Collector and Bilaspur District Magistrate. “We have to change the thinking of people so that they are amenable to using the toilets.”

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Building a Methane-Fueled Fire: Innovation of the Week

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

For half the world’s population, every meal depends on an open fire that is fueled by wood, coal, dung, and other smoke-producing combustibles. These indoor cookfires consume large amounts of fuel and emit carbon dioxide and other dangerous toxins into the air, blackening the insides of homes and leading to respiratory diseases, especially among women and children.

Biogas, however, takes advantage of what is typically considered waste, providing a cleaner and safer source of energy. Biogas units use methane from manure to produce electricity, heat, and fertilizer while emitting significantly less smoke and carbon monoxide than other sources of fuel. Access to an efficient, clean-burning stove not only saves lives—smoke inhalation-related illnesses result in 1.5 million deaths per year—it also reduces the amount of time that women spend gathering firewood, which the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) estimates is 10 hours per week for the average household in some rural areas.

The IFAD-funded Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development Project (GBLADP) helped one farmer in Eritrea, Tekie Mekerka, make the most of the manure his 30 cows produce by helping to install a biogas unit on his farm (similar to the unit that Danielle saw in Rwanda with Heifer International). Now, says Mekerka, “we no longer have to go out to collect wood for cooking, the kitchen is now smoke-free, and the children can study at night because we have electricity.”Additionally, Mekerka is using the organic residue left by the biogas process as fertilizer for his family’s new vegetable garden.

In Rwanda, the government is making biogas stove units more accessible by subsidizing installation costs, and it hopes to have 15,000 households nationwide using biogas by 2012. While visiting with Heifer Rwanda, Danielle met Madame Helen Bahikwe, who, after receiving government help to purchase her biogas unit, is now more easily cooking for her 10-person family and improving hygiene on the farm with hot water for cleaning. In China, IFAD found that biogas saved farmers so much time collecting firewood that farm production increased. In Tanzania, the Foundation for Sustainable Rural Development (SURUDE), with funding from UNDP, found that each biogas unit used in their study reduced deforestation by 37 hectares per year. And in Nigeria, on a much larger scale, methane and carbon dioxide produced by a water purifying plant is now being used to provide more affordable gas to 5,400 families a month, thanks to one of the largest biogas installations in Africa.

To read more about how waste can be turned into a source of fuel, energy, and nutrition see: Making Fuel Out of Waste, Growing Food in Urban “Trash,” ECHOing a Need for Innovation in Agriculture, Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste, and Vertical Farms: Finding Creative Ways to Grow Food in Kibera.

If you know of other ways people are making the most of their waste and would like to share it with us, we encourage you to leave a comment or fill out our agriculture innovation survey here

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