Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem?

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  • joeturner
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Re: Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem? Too much ecosan in SuSanA?

Responding to Elizabeth

First, I am not talking about zero risk. I am talking about unacceptably high risk.

Second I am talking about eThekwini because they have done the most microbial analysis of the most UDDTs. They have concluded:

www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?pid=S1816-7...5&script=sci_arttext

At the current stage, the eThekwini model of dry sanitation does not involve the reuse of human urine and excreta. Several risk assessments on the reuse of faecal material from UDDTs have been conducted, with unfavourable results in terms of excreta re-use. Trónnberg et al. (2010), for instance, screened samples from the faecal vaults of 120 UDDTs in eThekwini and found a high occurrence of both protozoan and helminth infections: Ascaris lumbricoides (59%), Giardia intestinalis (54%), Trichuris trichiura (48%), Cryptosporydium spp. (21%) and Taenia spp. (18%). The high pathogen load recorded in these areas suggests the need for further community health and hygiene education as a prerequisite for human waste reuse which complies with WHO guidelines for sludge reuse in agriculture (WHO, 2006).


Pathogens in the UDDTs in eThekwini are not considered to be destroyed to safe enough levels for reuse.

I hear what arno says about UDDTs, but here we have studies on UDDTs which conclude that they are not safe.

If one is using an UDDT, how does one tell whether the faeces is unsafe for use as in South Africa or safe as described by arno? I don't think that is possible without regularly sampling and testing the faeces in your own UDDT system.

As to what is or is not ecosan:

I do not consider meso-scale co-composting to be ecosan in the sense that most advocates are using the term because there is good evidence that co-composting destroys pathogens and there is patchy evidence about the effectiveness of composting toilets. This is because of the size of composting toilets: composting works when the oxygen levels and carbon levels are high enough to promote microbial activity, which causes high temperatures which kills the pathogens. Composting toilets are small and contained in small containers. The oxygen levels are low and the nitrogen levels are typically high. Composting, if it happens at all, happens very slowly and is not consistent.

As this paper states, composting toilets are a misnomer: they do not and cannot compost.

www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479713000169

Thermophilic composting for days to weeks at temperatures of 55 °C or greater generally ensures simultaneous pathogen destruction and stabilization, which leads to the development of mature compost (Haug 1993). However, these temperatures are rarely attained in in-field public CTs (Chapman, 1993; Guardabassi et al. 2003; Jenkins, 2005) or in urine diverting CTs (Peasey, 2000; Hurtado, 2005) and were also not measured at any locations here. Even when thermophilic temperatures have been attained, often through diversion of urine, inclusion of readily degradable food waste, auxiliary heat, or pH adjustment, heterogeneity in the material can leave pockets of insufficiently heated material which could potentially harbor pathogens (Guardabassi et al. 2003; Vinnerås, 2007; Niwagaba et al. 2009).


Again, unless you are monitoring your composting toilet with regular microbial testing, it is impossible to know whether high temperatures are being reached and whether pathogens are being destroyed. The best evidence suggests that they are not.

Sweden and Germany is not relevant in this context, as I have already said healthcare is good and faecal pathogens are not endemic. Most advocates of composting toilets base their advice on studies from developed countries where the pathogen loading is much lower in the first place.

So in both of these cases, whether you consider UDDTs to be ecosan or not, in areas where there is no testing and not further treatment, it is impossible to say what the risk is from any given on-site dispersed system.

And there are plenty of people who use the terms ecosan with UDDTs - for example this paper from 2013

www.iwaponline.com/jwrd/003/jwrd0030055.htm

‘Lessons learnt on Ecosan in Morocco’ is a short analysis of experience gained in Morocco especially in rural areas where people do not have adequate systems of evacuation of their wastewater. The rural population cannot afford conventional sanitation systems. In response to this, we have thought to promote ecological sanitation that recognises wastewater not as a waste but as a resource. The first Urine-Diversion Dehydration Toilets (UDDTs) were introduced in a rural village called ‘Dayet Ifrah’ in Morocco in December 2009. Since then, households are starting to see the advantages of UDDTs and the systems are becoming more and more accepted. The UDDT systems implemented in the village could be used as a model for Moroccan rural areas. This paper sets out how the Ecosan approach was successfully introduced in Morocco where people are motivated by reasons to improve this approach such as no smell, safety, comfort, privacy and water reuse. Results reveal that the users are satisfied with the Ecosan approach to cleanse their wastewater. Although Ecosan is relatively new to Morocco, it seems that it can succeed in very poor populations. The paper contains information on general experiences in the different countries and also lessons learnt on Ecosan in each country.


I do not accept that there is a 'striving to minimise risk' given that the vast majority of dispersed systems are unmonitored, and therefore the risk of individual systems is actually unknown. Indeed, based on the best evidence available which has calculated risks, UDDTs and composting toilets would never be considered treatment.

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  • Elisabeth
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Re: Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem? Too much ecosan in SuSanA?

This is an interesting conversation that has brought out some pertinent issues, thanks.

I still don't really understand what your definition of ecosan is, Joe. Now you are talking of "dispersed systems" (probably more generally known as on-site systems or decentralised systems).

As you indicated yourself, not all dispersed systems are ecosan. Meaning there are also decentralised systems which do not lend themselves to reuse. Most well-known: septic tanks (with all their known flaws).

I disagree with your statement that all ecosan systems are "dispersed".

You said:

I do not consider meso-scale composting to be ecosan

My question back would be: why not? Where is it written or agreed to by a group of experts that ecosan cannot include meso-scale composting?

We have well-known ecosan systems that combine on-site technology (a UDDT) with off-site treatment (e.g. community level composting, which you tend to call meso-scale composting).

And I see no reason why a UDDT has to necessarily be emptied by the toilet owner himself or herself and the content be composted and reused in his or her garden. I, like Christoph, would be very happy, especially for urban situations, to have a commercial service provider who does the emptying and treatment at a more centralised level - with all the pathogen testing that you are asking for. This is still "ecosan" as per the definition agreed to by experts. There is an example of this kind of thing happening in Bolivia, see the SuSanA case study on this:
www.susana.org/en/resources/library/details/1583

Or read in this thread on ecosan at scale from 2012:
forum.susana.org/forum/categories/17-fer...-sanitation-at-scale

I think that SOIL in Haiti as well as Sanergy in Kenya are also working along the same lines.

Then your other point, you keep bringing up the eThekwini (Durban) case. Yes, there are some disgruntled users there. Not for health reasons though, but for other reasons (some of which have to do with post-apartheid sensitivities). We have also discussed this on the forum elsewhere in the past.

If your theory was true that the risk of disease transmission during vault emptying and burial was unacceptably high, then there would be a lot of sick people in the Durban area (400,000 users of UDDTs there!). Do you really think that eThekwini municipality would go down that route if that was the case? On the contrary, they have done more research on this than anyone else. From the studies I have seen, the health of these users is the same if not better than of users of other types of toilets (ah, your argument will probably be that the other types of toilets are equally bad).
I searched the internet for one study that I had in mind and found this one from 2007 but I think there is also a more recent publication:

www.susana.org/en/resources/library/details/1169

Lutchminarayan, R. D. (2007). Sanitation, water and hygiene in eThekwini Municipality, Durban, South Africa - Baseline cross-sectional study.

I am going to contact Chris Buckley and ask if he can enlighten us.

Now coming back to those UDDT users (or users of composting toilets) who do indeed empty their own toilets and make compost and use it in their own garden (me being one of them). There is a not negligible number of these kinds of people in Germany but also especially in Sweden with their summer homes. I feel perfectly comfortable with dealing with the faeces (including pathogens) of my own family members. If any of us is sick then we are more likely to infect the other family member via handshakes and hugs, and not via faecal matter that might get on our hands (despite the fact that I wear gloves, wash my hands and so forth - multiple barrier concept). You can also get in contact with faeces of family members in other ways, by the way, e.g. cleaning up babies or caring for elderly family members. Also here, one would apply normal hygiene precautions to minimise the risk of disease spreading.

I am not saying that this type of toilet (dry toilets) is the right thing for everyone. It might work for well-educated people in an otherwise very safe environment with no helminth infections around (Sweden), but might not work so well in certain other scenarios. But I just needed to give this example because I don't agree with your sweeping statements of such "ecosan toilets" always being unsafe.

Last point: you seem to argue from very much an "academic/idealistic" level, as when Christoph challenges you with ponds, septic tanks or pit latrines you say they are equally bad or worse (which most of use would agree with). As far as I can tell you have not been able to put a possible technology combination forward that would meet your idealistic aim of zero risk (unless it was very expensive and not affordable for most people in developing countries, like e.g. membrane bioreactors). Or have you and I have missed it? Do you have experience with any "ideal" system in either a developed world or a developing world context? If yes, I would love to hear about that.

We all strive to minimise risks and to bring them down to an acceptable level. That's what the WHO multiple-barrier concept is all about. If you are looking for zero risk then you might as well give up now. You also drive a car even though you know that there is a residual risk of accident and injury (despite all our precautions of seat belts and air bags etc.).

As Arno said we are all on a learning curve together on this. We are wiser now than 10 years ago, and 10 years from now we will know even more.

One thing I agree with you is that I also get irritated with over-exaggerated claims of "complete pathogen destruction", "100% treatment" and alike with any kind of sanitation technology, including UDDTs. I think we need to put as many barriers in place as is economically feasible, know and understand remaining risks and manage them accordingly.

And keep in mind that sustainable sanitation does not always have to include a reuse component. It often does, but by definition it doesn't have to.

Oh and I still disagree with Florian's "laissez-faire" approach when it comes to definitions of terms. I do believe that agreeing on terms and then fixing them in glossaries - or even better in wikipedia pages which can be easily adapted as new things come to light - is a very important process. It might hurt at first to give up certain definitions that we have constructed for ourselves but ultimately we will all benefit from it.

(Oh and no problem, Florian, if locally you call the UDDTs in Moldova "ecosan toilets" - then this is your local definition, that's not in contradiction with what I am saying - which is more the "global definition" at an international discourse level).

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  • Florian
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Re: Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem? Too much ecosan in SuSanA?

[Start of Page 2 of the discussion]

Elisabeth, I personally am not a big fan of insisting in strict definition of things, especially ecosan. As I said in my first not entirely serious post, a lot of things have been called ecosan. And still are. For example, in Moldova, I call the school toilets we build there "ecosan", simply because thats how people there know them. When talking here in the forum, I call them UDDT. If they are sustainable sanitation remains to be seen, looks not too bad so far.

So for the terminology thing, I wouldn't bother too much, anyway it's always necessary for people to make clear what they are talking about when using certain terms. But of course that's just my opinion.

I don't think we need to discuss much about the idea of ecosan = shitting in a bucket. That's just a polemic used by Joe in his blog post full of more polemics.

As much as I enjoyed his inital posts here, lately he seems to have become a bit obsessed with his single focus on total pathogen destruction in technologies, and quite dismissive of everything that seems not fit his own narrow understanding of priorities. But of course it would be better to wait until he comes back here so we can discuss with him, rather than continuing discuss about him.


+++++++++

Note by moderator (EvM): a discussion on the topic about the multiple barrier concept which followed this post has now been moved to here:
forum.susana.org/forum/categories/17-fer...t-than-another#10048

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  • Elisabeth
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Re: Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem? Too much ecosan in SuSanA?

Don't worry, I am taking it easy. I am not losing sleep over it. ;-)

But one thing I do react allergic about is when ecosan is equated to "sustainable sanitation", because this is in my opinion important to differentiate the two.

If you equate ecosan to sustainable sanitation, then you can also say "a cat = a dog", or "a house = a car"... or "a pit latrine = a septic tank"...

If we don't stick to certain conventions of terminology then we might as well give up.
This is one of the things that confuses the hell out of newcomers to sanitation. I remember being a newcomer myself some years/decades ago and I remember being confused by all sorts of terms being used arbitrarily, everyone making up their own definitions...

This is the reason why people like Eawag-Sandec are proposing a glossary of terms, see also this discussion: forum.susana.org/forum/categories/53-fae...onfusing-terminology

That's why people refer to Wikipedia to look for the definitions of terms and so forth.

So, therefore I do pledge that mixing up ecosan with sustainable sanitation by saying "it's all more or less the same thing" is not helpful for anyone. It just creates a messy situation.

But perhaps I am the only one who thinks in this way?

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  • AquaVerde
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Re: Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem? Too much ecosan in SuSanA?

Dear Elisabeth,

for explanation:
I try to look first what have approaches (and humans too) in common not what is dividing them. I do not care what is it called by names and pre-posted intentions.
Just out of life experiences, I care very simple only about their practical results (my "red thread" to understand better):
- Is it maybe good towards reuse (Keeping resources "alive"?)? Yes! Good!
- Going already step by step slowly in this direction? Yes! Good too.
Just very much a switch like I/0, but accepting grey's too, beloved complexities are most of the time very-very simple...

Additional "purism" do not help.
Take it maybe more easy :))

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  • Elisabeth
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Re: Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem? Too much ecosan in SuSanA?

Interesting points made, thanks!

Florian, I also thought the times of fighting over terms and concepts and sanitation "ideologies" were over (this was one of the aims of the formation of SuSanA!), which is why Joe Turner's statement shocked me a bit - especially since he is a very valued long-term and frequent post on the forum with an impressive knowledge of the current literature and of all aspects related to reuse risks. I have enjoyed many, if not all, of his excellent contributions on the forum. It makes me think that if even he thinks that way, many others do, too (but don't normally pop up on this forum, and don't even bother to speak to us about this). Plus, then I was recently told again about this issue of "discussions on the forum being hijacked by ecosan people", and this perception got me worried.

So I think we still need to have this conversation, even though we thought that we didn't.

One thing towards Detlef:
You have written in your post above (and in previous posts): "sustainable sanitation" aka "ecosan" aka "resources-oriented sanitation" - (aka stands for "also known as"). This is not true though. Time and time again we stress that there is a difference between "sustainable sanitation" and "ecosan". It is not the same thing (see e.g. Arno's post above). In short: Ecosan is completely focused on reuse, whereas sustainable sanitation (and SuSanA) is not.

See also:
www.susana.org/en/about/faq#Is sustainable sanitation the same as ecosan?

++++
Is sustainable sanitation the same as ecosan?

No, sustainable sanitation and ecosan are not exactly the same. The main objective of sustainable sanitation is to protect and promote human health by providing a clean environment and breaking the cycle of disease. In order to be sustainable, a sanitation system has to be not only economically viable, socially acceptable, and technically and institutionally appropriate, it should also protect the environment and the natural resources. Ecosan systems also strive for sustainability but focus in particular on one of these criteria namely the resource protection via recovery of nutrients contained in excreta and household wastewater and on their safe reuse in agriculture. Information and documents concerning the ecosan concept can be found here: www.susana.org/en/resources/library?search=ecosan

++++

Sorry for nit picking on this one, I guess it is my acadmic side showing here.
But please let's not say that "sustainable sanitation aka ecosan".

Regards,
Elisabeth
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  • Florian
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Re: Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem? Too much ecosan in SuSanA?

Thanks Arno, for nicely summing up the historic of this discussion.

As I was with the gtz ecosan team for a while, I had the (often doubtful) pleasure to live through a part of these discussions on terminology and struggles between different camps of hardcore-ecosanies, conventionals and the ones between.

I thought that we are over this now, and therefore I'm mildley surprised that this has come up again once more. Even more suprising is that it comes in a form of statement loaded with ignorance from a quite active susana forum user. Learning curves were mentionned, but I rather see the opposite here. I wonder what has gone wrong here?

I totally agree with Arno, our discussion should not be any more around which technologies are good or bad, but how the right technologies can be selected for the different contexts, and more importantly how they can be made working properly and lastingly, and most importantly, how all this can be done by local goverments and people.

There are countless examples of failures for any type of technologies, just look at the number of ruins of sewer systems and wwtp out there (though the reputation of sewers and wwtp seems a bit more robust, compared to UDDT and similar newcomers on the market). But then, even "shitting in a bucket" can be part of a safe and relatively comfortable sanitation system, if done properly. What matters, is how things are done.

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  • AquaVerde
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Re: Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem? Too much ecosan in SuSanA?

Many thanks especially to Joe Turner who provoked this discussion by "shitting in a bucket" ;-). Thanks to Chris Canaday and Elisabeth v. Munich who picked it up.

As in previous discussions, "sustainable sanitation" (also known as "ecosan", "resources-oriented sanitation", and many other aliases) should not be seen only through the glasses of purists, nor should it be too technology related, nor just sales driven.

Let’s please take this out of our narrow sanitation niche and the controversy about whether "ecosan = shitting in a bucket" and look at the bigger picture, which I may call "a common thread". Human development depends on resources (natural & human: know-how and labor force). Human resources are mostly "renewable", while many natural resources are not renewable during our lifetimes.

For better understanding: "a common thread" means common level of acting and thinking, them only acting within our sanitation niches (water based and not water based).

In my opinion, even if simple "shitting in a bucket" is keeping resources "alive" for reuse by future generations, it is an important part of our learning curve toward completing this very unfinished chapter in human development (Arno Rosemarin):

There is a general need to keep more --and hopefully ALL-- resources "alive" for future generations.

Therefore "sustainable sanitation" is part of this larger "red thread" of learning to establish a "circular economy" (also known as Cradle-to-Cradle, etc.). Any potential mistakes or bumps along the way are important and needed parts of our learning.

Thanks, Arno Rosemarin, for reminding me about the "old" ecosan near Braunschweig, which I visited in 1993, during my postgraduate MSc-course on Tropical Water-Engineering. At that time, I had no clue about "shitting in a bucket" and this "common thread" ;-)

Back then, my response was, "I certainly do not want to live in such a countryside where shit is reused...", in short I was not amused...

...since I did not yet have such a broad perspective on sanitation and waste management.

This Forum is contributing considerably to our collective learning about "shitting in a bucket" as a contribution to "the common thread".

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Detlef SCHWAGER
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  • pkjha
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Re: Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem? Too much ecosan in SuSanA?

Definition of Ecological Sanitation by Esrey et al. (2003) is a complete. Arno made it more clear.
Generation and utilisation of biogas from human excreta and safe reuse of effluent for agriculture purpose is also an Ecosan.

The report of the 1st Ecological conference held in 2001 in Nanning , China clearly defines Ecological sanitation and its objectives. The following is the quote from the report:

Some of these areas of consensus were as follows:

- Ecological sanitation is an approach, a way of thinking, rather than a technology or a
device. The approach is characterized by ‘closed-loop’ thinking and practice, whereby
the human need for a safe, congenial and dignified means of sanitation is met, the
nutrients excreted are safely redeployed in agricultural production, and ecological
security is maintained.

- There is no single ecological sanitation prescription or solution. A menu of options
must be considered, and choices offered to households and communities. There should
be choice of technology, and of focus to meet different needs and interests – including
health, agriculture, environmental stewardship, quality of life, and poverty reduction.
In order to make choices, people need to be informed about available alternatives and
their consequences by education, information exchange, popular media, drama, and
demonstration visits.

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  • arno
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Re: Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem? Too much ecosan in SuSanA?

In the early days during the 1990s when the term ecosan was something new, discussions were heated and confrontational. Supporters of ecosan claimed the corner on containment, treatment and reuse. The establishment defended deep pit latrines, and waterborne systems and they felt offended. Ecosan supporters criticised conventional sanitation for killing children, contaminating waterways with nutrients and pathogens and making Helminth worms a global pandemic with upwards of 2 billion cases. Some of these debates which took place openly in international meetings in Sweden and elsewhere were characterised by anger, persecution and personality clashes.

Things came to a head in 2003 in Kyoto at the World Water Forum when India's sanitation dilemma was discussed and proponents of flush systems said that dry toilets requiring emptying were in conflict with the laws against scavenging. With time, more and more ecosan installations were carried out around the world with both success and failures. I recall some of the comments at IWA conferences where conventional sanitation experts lauded their ecosan colleagues for being transparent and honest.

Indeed acknowledgement for ecosan came with the awarding of the Stockholm Water Prize in 2013 to Peter Morgan, a pioneer of handpumps and ventilated pit latrines (VIPs)in addition to ecosan toilets (the Arborloo, the Skyloo and the Fossa alterna). And this has continued with the awarding this week of the Stockholm Water Industry Prize to Neil MacLeod from Durban for several successes including the world's largest ecosan project (90,000 installations).

When skeptics learn that the most complete ecosan sewage treatment plant has been running in Braunschweig near Hannover, Germany for over 60 years, where everything is reused, the debate room goes quiet. www.abwasserverband-bs.de/en/who-we-are/history/

The debate we need should be more about the functionality, operations and maintenance of all sanitation systems, both simple and complex. The entire sector needs to enter the era of sustainable development and this spans sanitation, hygiene, and solid waste. Innovation is called for. And people and communities need to be at the centre since sanitation and waste are closely connected to attitudes and behaviour.

Of course we can have debates on the economics of onsite vs centralised systems in urban centres thus justifying the use of water in pipes to transport excreta to centralised treatment plants. Such systems have served a large part of the world well since they were introduced. But for parts of the world onsite sanitation remains the mainstay (eg Africa). In all cases there is a need to improve and rethink and to redefine food and partly digested food wastes as resources - especially since they can easily be reused for their energy, water and nutrient content. There is room for new ideas.

With the birth of SuSanA, clear definitions for both sustainable and ecological sanitation were arrived at. Please refer to these on the SuSanA website if you are not sure:
www.susana.org/en/about/faq#Is sustainable sanitation the same as ecosan?

When it comes to sanitation, everyone is more or less on a learning curve. This is because it is a very unfinished chapter in human development. We hope this Forum will add to your learning.

Greetings from Stockholm,
Arno
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Re: Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem? Too much ecosan in SuSanA?

"many" as in "many but not all quick fix programmes". I agree that there aren't/haven't been so many, but seemingly sufficient to give Ecosan a bad name in many places.

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  • Florian
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  • Water and Sanitation Specialist at Skat Consulting Ltd.
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Re: Ecosan - what is it really? And what is the problem with ecosan? Is there a problem? Too much ecosan in SuSanA?

JKMakowka wrote: many "quick fix" government projects involving Ecosan.


Are there really many? governmental "quick fix" programmes I know usually are latrine or pour flush toilet building programmes, or even sewerage programmes, but ecosan*???

*which I understand here as UDDT toilets or similar, not "shitting in a bucket"

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