How can poor communities make sustainable use of locally available materials without endangering the environment?

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I was recently in Darfur to conduct CLTS training. I had been invited by Tearfund UK in conjunction with Oxfam America. During this workshop one of the participants raised a question for which I was not able to provide an answer immediately.

The government of Sudan and INGOs are strictly discouraging cutting down of trees for any purpose so as to enable replenishing the forest cover in Darfur. The main challenge here is that most of the time, after successful CLTS trigger, communities want to use locally available materials such as timber to construct their latrines, yet this is against government policy which clearly discourages cutting of trees. This situation seems to pose a big dilemma for NGOs who may wish to roll out CLTS in the affected regions. The biggest challenge is in the construction of the floor of the latrine where they need to use timber which is strong and durable enough. As for the superstructure they are many other alternatives available to them.

It was the first time that I was experiencing this kind of question, and I thought it would be wise of me to make further consultations in order to provide an informed answer. I sincerely thank Sammy Musyoki, Petra Bongartz, Prof. Robert Chambers and Yirgalem Solomon for their reflections in response to this question.

The issue is that some parts of Darfur are faced with serious problems of desertification. A major contributing factor to this problem has been wanton destruction of existing forest cover by many different forces mainly for profit, and by the communities for construction works but also as a source of energy (firewood). This situation has reached desperate levels. In an effort to reverse this unfortunate trend, the government in collaboration with many INGOs and NGOs, has intensified efforts in recent times to discourage communities from cutting trees and instead is encouraging the planting of more trees.

One of the interventions the NGOs working in the sanitation sector have put in place is to encourage communities to adopt alternative materials for latrine construction rather than timber/ wood which has been commonly used by the communities in the past. One particular INGO encourages the households to make concrete slabs and compensates them with SDG (Sudanese pound) 100 which is an equivalent of about US$ 25. This is the cost of making such a slab. Therefore the households don’t make any additional profit out of the venture. This money is paid strictly after completion and installation of slab. The INGO sees this as part of an effort to support communities’ access to sanitation facilities while at the same time supporting efforts to conserve the environment.

From the above scenario the main questions are:

  • what should be the way forward in this kind of situation within the context of advocating for a non-subsidy intervention,
  • how can the poor communities be enabled to make sustainable use of locally available materials without endangering the environment?

On the question of non-subsidy
Non-subsidy intervention remains a non-negotiable principle of CLTS. The rationale for this is as follows:

  • Subsidies do not motivate communities to construct latrines. This was clearly witnessed during the training where one of the villages which had benefited from latrine subsidies did not put the materials to their intended purpose. This has also been the situation in other parts of the world.
  • Provision of subsidies normally tends to create segregation and division within the communities between those who get the subsidies and those who don’t. This creates unnecessary resentment particularly amongst those who don’t get, which eventually undermines collective efforts to stop open defecation and make a village open defecation free.
  • Subsidies are expensive and no organization has the capacity to subsidize entire households in a village, as such it will always be riddled with controversy regarding its implementation, which only serves to undercut the objective of enabling open defecation free villages.
  • Subsidies also have a tendency of sabotaging the activities of other organizations working in the neighboring communities who wish to pursue a non-subsidy intervention.
  • Subsidies are dependent on INGOs with big budgets to spend and they often entail promoting technologies that are out of reach to the poor people. So in the long run they are unsustainable.

On the question of sustainable use of local materials such as timber
The main issue is how the communities can be facilitated to use their environment (trees for making latrines) in a sustainable manner, while at the same time constructing affordable latrines without subsidies. The following are some of the options available:

  • Breaking the stones that are the size of sanplat, making a hole at the middle and using it as a slab for latrine construction.
  • Communities may be encouraged to form groups to buy the materials (cement, ballast, sand) collectively. This is likely to reduce the cost per individual household due to the economics of scale. This may make latrine construction more affordable and reduce dependency on subsidy.
  • Sanitation marketing may also be considered. This is where the private sector can sell plastic sanplats to the communities, through a loan mechanism in partnership with a local financial institution which may be interested to support the venture.
  • Construction of off-set latrines may also be considered. This is where the latrine pit is located either partially or wholly away from the latrine superstructure. This may not require the use of timber.
  • Another option would be to encourage construction of latrines with shallow pits, probably about 1 meter deep. These kinds of latrines will of course fill up much faster. But the advantages are three fold. One is that they will use less timber to make the floor, and two, the filled up latrines could be converted to arborloos (visit http://aquamor.tripod.com/ArborLoo2.HTM for more information) where they plant trees. The manure accumulated underneath will help the trees grow much faster. This will result in a sustainable and strategic use of the natural resources. Finally this will also work well in villages with high water table, as it will reduce the possibilities of contamination.

Philip Vincent Otieno is an experienced freelance CLTS trainer and facilitator
You can contact him on pvotieno@yahoo.com

Date: 14 May 2012
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