Monday, 6 April 2009

Up for air

It's been almost a month since Paulo (straw and earth building maestro / permaculture teacher) and Ruth (desert environmental school and permaculture student) arrived to help get our field camp up and running. This is supposed to be an area to accommodate a few people. A proper outdoor kitchen, somewhere to keep things clean. A toilet and shower. A bath (outdoors, log fired) a herb garden and the other essentials.

But how it has consumed all of our energy and every living moment of the days! Watermill research, thesis, blog, emails and any other contact with the outside world has fallen away...

Natalie joined the gang a week or so later, a fellow student at the CAT's environment and energy studies course.

Then my mum, Stephanie, and the kids off school, and we have a proper work site cooking along.

First major endeavour: finish that compost toilet. My Romanian uncle in-law always talks about how a toilet is the first thing you need on any building site. And after a few meals on a basic camp fire, I know what he means.

But there are outdoor toilets, latrines, holes in the ground and then compost toilets. These are completely different creatures. In fact, the creatures are what we want to cultivate in the compost version, and maintaining a good balance of carbon based substances to the nitrogen and phosphates that we deliver so regularly down the chute. Also, air. If we deprive the little bugs of oxygen, the mix becomes anaerobic and stinks big time. If it becomes too dry, it also stops the bug party and stops breaking down properly. And can also smell.

There is a lot of research and excellent publications that describe this process (and compost toilet design) in detail, but probably the best and most accessible (like free) is the humanure handbook, which is online as a PDF.

Read it and weep - at how poorly educated we have all been, all these years, about the phenomenal waste of treated drinking water we merrily flush down the pan, or the lost opportunity of viewing our waste as a valuable resource for restoring fertility and life to the soil (if it's properly composted).

I think back to the thousands of latrines I have organised or funded in disaster or post-disaster areas, like Liberia, Bosnia, Aceh, Somalia, Maldives, Eritea or Albania, etc. where we (NGOs / UN) have erected latrine blocks - on alters to the Guru of Smell. And often of public health hazard. Never in all these countries, had we considered human waste as anything but a public health nuisance. Even in the arid areas where good loamy soil is much needed to get a few trees re-established or to bring on some above ground crops.

Or in small island states (like the Maldives) where local septic tank run-off is polluting the precious fresh water resource just underground. ANd where the land is so salinated it too is desperate for some less sandy soil. Instead of compost (or better, biogas toilets) we pipe it out to sea, or make a thicker septic tank and hope for the best.

This used to get me very flustered: surely the international humanitarian community could incorporate this and a thousand other really basic ecological construction and clean energy design solutions ? Surely local universities and Governments in the disaster affected areas need access to this information, to make an informed choice?

These were some of the drivers for setting up RESET in 2007, and many of us tried to get the word out in lectures and training talks. And many are still very active, and RESET is running some training courses this summer in fact. Meanwhile, I am learning to love our bugs, and what they like to eat down there in the cool home we ave made for them, where they consumer our waste in silent and odourless darkness.

Quick summary of process:

- structure build from reclaimed wood from the main house, and some bits of pruned olive trees
- Two chambers, each about 1 square meter. For rotation, when the first if full. When second is full, first will be composted.
- We lined the chambers with a clay-sand-straw-water (cob) mix, to give it thermal mass - to regulate temperature differences, considering the extreme summer heat and cold nights.
- vent pipe installed to allow any methane to escape.

For pictures of construction of toilet, see here


Rupert Wolfe-Murray said...

Very insiring indeed. This is something we all need. You should make a video explaining how to do it.

abelhas said...

i set up a website to try to collect info about compost toilets:

would you consider posting about your compost loo?

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