Why did the world's biggest urban eco-toilet scheme fail? (Erdos Eco-town Project in Erdos, Inner Mongolia, China)


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  • RowanBarber
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Why did the world's biggest urban eco-toilet scheme fail? (Erdos Eco-town Project in Erdos, Inner Mongolia, China)

Some one just sent me the following link via twitter.

I would be interested to hear from the forum, if anyone has some insights into what went wrong.

Rowan Barber
Australian Sustainable Business Group
Engineers Without Borders Australia
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  • Ecowaters
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Re: Why did the World's biggest eco-toilet scheme fail?

The usual.

This isn't the world biggest eco-toilet scheme.
Remember the "millions" of dry toilets removed from low-income government-funded housing in Mexico reported in the first edition of Ecological Sanitation.

Dry toilets in low-income housing schemes often come with issues of buy-in, prescribed typology and design, operation and maintenance, installation, and so forth. All issues that must be worked out by any introduction program.
It's too bad because when this was reported in the U.S. a few months ago, this story was referenced by many considering installing these systems.

Carol Steinfeld
Book writer, researcher, workshop presenter, eco-toilet vendor, market transformer

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  • Dena Fam
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Re: Why did the World's biggest eco-toilet scheme fail?

Thanks for posting this Rowen

It would be nice to have a well documented report on why this project failed....
My question would be. Was there monitoring, evaluation or learning captured over the 3 years of the project? Or did SEI go in to Ordos, install these systems without evaluation?

If this is 'the usual' scenario as Carol suggests, then it would great to try and figure out how to make it the exception!

I would really like to know more about this project too!

Dr Dena Fam
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  • awaisarifeen
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Re: Why did the World's biggest eco-toilet scheme fail?

Indeed it is really disappointing for all those who are big supporters of such systems. ECOSAN concept was based on the premise that centralized highly technical treatment plants are not the solution in the future. And if finally they considered centralized treatment plant as option, this challenges the success of ECOSAN's basic concept.
A PhD position was announced with focus on research related to this area i guess. May be we should wait for the findings in the researcher's thesis.
A PhD thesis was also written by a researcher of Cambridge University with title "Towards Sustainable Sanitation: Evaluating the Sustainability of Resource‐Oriented Sanitation". This thesis had case study of this area. This thesis had interesting findings about the sustainability of system in question.
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  • canaday
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Re: Why did the World's biggest eco-toilet scheme fail?

Hi Rowan,

Thanks for circulating this link. In EcoSan, potentially more than in other fields, it is important for us to learn from our errors.

"The devil is in the details." From other posts about this case, we know that subcontractors had not understood or followed the design. With 20/20 hindsight, we see that they should not have been trusted so much and there should have been more inspection. Maybe volunteers could have been called in for this inspection, if funds did not allow for hiring someone. Or what else oould have been done?

Best wishes,
Conservation Biologist and EcoSan Promoter
Omaere Ethnobotanical Park
Puyo, Pastaza, Ecuador, South America
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  • madeleine
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Re: Why did the World's biggest eco-toilet scheme fail?

Dear all
Thanks for circulating the blog about the Erdos pilot project in the Guardian.The Erdos R&D project was a huge project with many actors involved and the project has been frequently visited by many researchers and politians.It has generated alot of knowledge and scientific reports. It is important to remember that this project was developed within a specific Chinesw context. To quote my collegueat SEI ,Guoyi Han Erdos "was R&D project conceived and implemented in response to the grand challenges faced by the rapidly urbanizing China in general and the Ordos city region in particular". From SEIs side we have been very open about the project development and what happened and why it happened. You will find an excellent workshop report (in English and Chinese) on the EcoSanRes webpage . The workshop was organized after the closing of the ecological sanitatio toilet project and the participants ,in a majority Chinese specialists , analysed the Erdos project based on the sustainability criterias www.ecosanres.org/erdosworkshop2009.htm

There is also an excellentSuSanA case study on this project

In addition I would like to highlight that a new book "The Challenges of Urban Ecological Sanitation: Lessons from the Erdos Eco-town Project" to be launched at World Water Week The book is available from Practical Action Publishing, UK (see flier attahced )

Hope this reading will help you all to get a better understanding about the project and the challenges as well as it will contribute to learning for future similar projects
All the best
Madeleine Fogde
Program Director SIANI
Senior Project Manager at SEI
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  • arno
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Re: Why did the World's biggest eco-toilet scheme fail?

We would like to respond to the story by Wu Shan in China Dialogue (originally published in Southern Metropolis Daily) on the China–Sweden Erdos Eco-Town Project. Although we are happy that the issue of sustainable sanitation is being reported on, Ms Wu's story presented the project as nothing but a messy failure, which is not a fair or accurate picture. Although we acknowledge that the basic premise of the article is correct – that there were major problems with the scheme, and that household users of the dry toilets were affected by being part of a research and development project – we believe that the article failed to provide crucial context by focusing so narrowly on residents’ complaints. This left readers with the false impression that ecological sanitation is not feasible in cities and that flush systems are the only alternative.

We strongly disagree. For a large share of the 2.5 billion people worldwide who lack adequate sanitation, 750 million of which live in urban settings, flush toilets connected to municipal sewers are not a viable option due to poverty, water shortages, groundwater contamination risks, and many other issues. This R&D project was the first major project of its kind and was designed to test, at full scale, alternative sanitation in an arid area of the world. The project encountered many challenges and uncovered many truths, and was in fact a valuable learning experience that will make future urban ecological sanitation projects more effective. To ensure this, we have written a book, The Challenges of Urban Ecological Sanitation: Lessons from the Erdos Eco-Town Project, that examines the enterprise in depth and shares what we have learned. This article briefly summarizes some of the key points.

The Erdos Eco-town project was a collaboration between the Dongsheng District government in Erdos and the Stockholm Environment Institute, and aimed to save water and provide sanitation services in this drought-stricken and rapidly urbanizing area of northern China. Prior to the project in 2003, the 250,000 residents of Dongsheng suffered water-rationing and used mainly public toilets, which were largely unfinished concrete-slab squatting pit latrines that had no lighting or heating, and no running water for washing. See the attached 2 photos showing 2 of the 300 public latrines.

The harsh winters, during which temperatures can drop as far as minus 30°C, made the exisiting pit latrines even tougher to use, and during the hours of darkness they became more or less open defecation zones in the city.

The challenge for the project was to work with local builders, government officials and residents to replace the poor existing sanitation situation and develop a dry sanitation system with urine diversion in multi-story apartments. Although the technology for these systems is not standard, it has been successfully carried out in Sweden and Germany as well as other locations at a smaller scale. The “Gebers” project in southern Stockholm has been running well since 1997. The Erdos project was an up-scaling effort, involving 832 apartments in 42 buildings of four or five floors and about 3,000 inhabitants.

At the start of the project, the small Dongsheng sewage treatment plant was working below its design capacity due to lack of sewer connections and pipes. The then District Governor, Zhang Dongsheng, was interested in developing an alternative sanitation system and chose the dry toilet solution based on the successes he saw in Sweden. SEI provided advisory services along with a team of Chinese experts in order to carry out the full scale R&D project.

As the project got under way the value of coal in China was rapidly increasing and Dongsheng underwent a mammoth building boom. The standard of living skyrocketed to levels similar to the coastal cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai. Also, a 100-km pipeline was built from the Yellow River to Dongsheng to increase freshwater supply, and fossil ground water reserves were further developed. As a result, the bases for the project – extreme water shortage and poverty – quickly disappeared, and the eco-toilet project became overshadowed by the rapid development. In fact an entire new city, Kangbashi, was built adjacent to Dongsheng during the period of the project.

The building company, municipal government and residents were all dedicated to this project at the start, but the rapid urbanization became a major burden and the project lacked skilled labour. The buildings were put up very quickly and the plumbing done by dozens of different firms with varying levels of competence. There was a serious lack of building inspection and apartments were being put on the market before the ecosan and ventilation equipment had been properly installed. Much of the poor workmanship was caused by not following the blueprints carefully, which resulted in leaky or wrong-sized pipes, and these faults were not discovered until walls were dismantled in 2008, two years after the buildings were completed. The building company was not interested in repairing its poor work and the city government was not in the position to apply pressure. The necessary investments to complete the project were not going to be made mainly since there was no dedicated owner.

There were also problems related to air pressure differences caused by high winds, open bathroom windows and kitchen air fans that caused ventilation abnormalities. Some top floor apartments experienced odour problems more often, which was linked to design limits and improper construction. During the project, design improvements to the basement ventilation installations were implemented at full scale by SEI. However, the building company did not play its role in repairing the pipe work, which was in fact poorly constructed from the outset.

Furthermore, the frozen ventilation pipes which caused havoc during the extremely cold winters of 2007 and 2008 were mainly caused by lack of pipe insulation in the attics and above the roof, an item lacking in the building codes in China.

Eco-sanitation technology not only needs care in its construction, but also in its use and maintenance. Many of the residents used the toilets as receptacles for solid waste which caused blocking of the ventilation system. Those that put bags of food waste into their toilets often experienced flies during the summer, and the faeces containers in the basements needed to be sprayed, although, “maggots and cockroaches crawling from the toilets” appears to be an unfortunate exaggeration, since this was not observed by our staff. Residents who used and maintained their toilets properly did not suffer the same problems.

It should be noted that neither residents nor workers reported health effects of any kind during the entire period of the project. The project had a 24-hour hotline where residents could file observations and complaints, and they received immediate service. In all cases there was satisfaction following this service visit. Most complaints dealing with odour could be solved on the spot.

The residents that were worried about the dry toilets reducing the value of their apartments were all pleased to find out that their properties had increase in value three to four times during the project. In fact these apartments were and remain very popular because of the green spaces and parking which were insisted on by the architects involved in the project from Sweden.

During the final stages of the project a new sort of dry toilet from Separett AB was tested, and modified to fit the multi-story chute system. Since each toilet contained its own small evacuation fan, odours could be eliminated even if the family had a strong kitchen fan on or the external vent pipes had been improperly built. The ideal toilet is therefore something that works even if there are building and plumbing faults. These new toilets were successfully run for an additional year up to the end of 2010. But the decision to install flush toilets had already been made by the local government.

The main reason, besides rapid regional economic development, for why the dry toilet project ran into problems was the lack of a dedicated owner. There were a range of factors that were also decisive:
1. Water shortage was – at least temporarily – no longer a problem since the pipeline was built to the Yellow River and deeper fossil water resources were extracted.
2. The odour problems during the extreme cold winter of 2007 acted as a negative tipping point for the project.
3. A stakeholder approach among tenants to encourage early participation and learning in use and maintenance of the toilets was not possible, since the tenants arrived on the scene as buyers after the apartments were built.
4. The household committee stated to the local government that they were not capable of taking on the costs of continuing the scheme, and the District Governor responded by investing in the flush toilets.
5. The standard of living in the Erdos area rose dramatically during the project. Dry toilets were considered by some residents as something backward in a modern urban setting.

Ecological sanitation is progressing well around the world. Ten years ago it was a rather odd activity and only practised by dedicated hobbyists. Now it is reaching mainstream status within the UN system and many governments have long-reaching plans for expansion in rural and peri-urban areas. About 5 million people are using these systems and the numbers are growing. Closing the loop on water and nutrients is a necessity in order to feed the increasing population (mostly urban) as we reach 9 billion by 2050. Dry urine-diverting toilets are but one approach and new ones are being developed. The dialogue on this development around the world continues on the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance ( www.susana.org ) discussion forum site, forum.susana.org.

See the new book describing the project in more detail:
The Challenges of Urban Ecological Sanitation: Lessons from the Erdos Eco-town Project by Arno Rosemarin, Jennifer McConville, Amparo Flores and Zhu Qiang. Practical Action Publishing, UK. 101p. developmentbookshop.com/the-challenges-o...,UW70,3FY8TC,2JK50,1

Arno Rosemarin and Guoyi Han
Stockholm Environment Institute
3 August, 2012
Arno Rosemarin PhD
Stockholm Environment Institute
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  • JKMakowka
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Re: Why did the World's biggest eco-toilet scheme fail?

madeleine wrote: There is also an excellentSuSanA case study on this project

Is there a reason why this is still in draft form with yellow marked comments? Seems strange for an official download from the SuSanA website.

Otherwise very interesting read and thanks for all the insightful replies.

IMHO, for me one very strong message repeats itself here: urban populations strive for (what they consider) modern and convenient. They would have probably excepted the technical start-up difficulties, if their flush-toilet neighbours would have not looked down on them for their smelly toilets. But of course such a rapid development is also hard to predict.
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  • Elisabeth
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Re: Why did the World's biggest eco-toilet scheme fail?

Thanks, Arno und Guoyi, for your detailed answer. It must be quite tiring to keep having to explain to people (journalists) the real detailed reason for the abandonement of those dry toilets at Erdos. I look forward to reading your book!
I actually wonder why this journalist and Guardian decided to write about this project at this particular point in time, when the article talks about things which are quite long ago (2010) without making any real reference to the present time.

And this sentences in the article is interesting:

The ecological toilets installed at Daxing were the design of Sweden's Stockholm Environment Institute – about five million people use the model worldwide.

It is firstly totally wrong, but secondly very impressive that 5 million people worldwide might be using dry urine diverting toilets. Can 5 million people really be totally wrong in their choice? Of course these 5 million are not using that exact same model which was used in Erdos and it is also not a design of SEI. From this sentence alone you can see that the journalist was a bit sloppy!
I wonder where that 5 million figure came from? Perhaps from our worldwide project list - although there we estimated 1.7 million users of UDDTs worldwide.
Link see here: www.susana.org/lang-en/library?view=ccbktypeitem&type=2&id=1423

To respond to Julius Makowka: Thanks for bringing this to my attention about the draft status. When we wrote the case study last year some open questions remained where we somehow didn't receive any answers in time. But now that the book has been published, we shall go back to those open questions and hopefully answer them with the help of the book or of the authors. So that no yellow questions remain in the case study and the "draft" can be taken out of the title.

addition on 8 August:
Arno has updated the case study, it is now final and has replaced the draft version (same link as given above)

In general, our philosophy is that a very good draft is already worth putting online, rather than waiting to have those last questions answered, which would sometimes delay publishing of a SuSanA case study by many months which would be a pity!

You can e.g. see here that the most recent ones of our 67 case studies still do have open questions even though they are already online:

I hope that answers your question.

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  • CeciliaRodrigues
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Re: Why did the World's biggest eco-toilet scheme fail?

Thanks Madeline and Arno for the clarifications on this subject. The topic is very interesting and I find a pity that the book is not available for free yet.

Since one aspect of my master thesis was community participation in environmental sanitation projects, I was particularly interested by the health problems mentioned by some women in the article and the answer provided by Arno:

It should be noted that neither residents nor workers reported health effects of any kind during the entire period of the project. The project had a 24-hour hotline where residents could file observations and complaints, and they received immediate service.

It is interesting to observe that not always the same channel for participation works for all groups of users. In this case, where the problems were in a private sphere, it's very unlikely that people would discuss it in a hotline. It's a quite impersonal and topics as such are rather discussed in small circles. Similar happened in one of my case studies, where problems regarding menstrual hygiene management never appeared to be a concern in community meetings until it was decided to have a specific meetings with groups of women as well as with the personal responsible for emptying the pit latrines. Not being notified by the problem does not mean it is not there.

It's just a small insight based on my research experience. Thank you once again for bringing up the topic. Discussing and learning from failures can be a fruitful way to improve our next movements.

Best regards,

Programme Officer at GIZ - Sustainable Sanitation Programme
and the SuSanA Secretariat
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  • Wolfgang Berger
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Re: Why did the World's biggest eco-toilet scheme fail?

Dear all,

"The death of the dry toilet" is surely the wrong conclusion about the project, because there are other smaller existing settlements in the multi-storey housing projects still using dry toilets since many years.

For example, the ecological settlement in Bielefeld, Germany, is in operation since 1994 and the integration of our TerraNova system was planned and implemented by us. This is a condition for a permanently functioning dry toilet system. The residents had been informed in advance about existing projects and talked to the residents about there experiences and fears. Only then, they have decided themselves for the dry toilet system. The maintenance is done by each family itself, so the user also had to learn that it is a living process of decomposition and not just a waste disposal. For questions and problems, we advise our customers from the beginning (see also my publication:
www.berger-biotechnik.com/downloads/toil...ohne_wasser_engl.pdf ).

It is a pitty that these experiences in planning, installation and operation were not requested from the beginning of the Erdos project, but we were involved, only when it has been nearly too late for a complete retrofitting of the existing system. Nevertheless, the Erdos project is an example for learning a lot for the next project (see also my comment on page 16 of the giz Technical Review "Composting Toilets"):

It was a great and important experience for me to work as a member of the retrofitting group, and to have found out solutions to improve the existing problems in a small part of the project.

Best regards and good luck for the dry toilet

Wolfgang Berger
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24113 Kiel, Germany
tel. +49(0)1724337875

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  • Tomsolna
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Re: Why did the World's biggest eco-toilet scheme fail?

This article makes me a bit nervous about introducing latrines at the Tsamadhi riding school and the peri urban areas outside Maputo in Mozambique.
As Lisa, the head of the riding school, has said I would have to be there when the latrine is built. Perhaps a good idea.
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