Talking Toilets in Ecuador

Ecuador 2015

By Kirk Siegler

October 27, 2015

Also published by NPR's On the Road

Drive north out of the gritty port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, and the traffic-clogged streets widen to broad highways lined with spiffy new shopping malls, American fast food restaurants… and gated community after gated community.

Guayaquil reminds me of the few other South American cities I’ve visited in the sense that the income disparities here are vast and almost always in your face. They can even vary by block.  

Case in point: As the sprawl finally starts to recede, we turn right off the highway at a roundabout and onto a dirt road. Within just a couple hundred yards, it’s a completely different world. Here is the area called Sabanilla, a rural neighborhood of subsistence farmers and deeply entrenched poverty.

It’s where 27-year-old Raquel Alvarez lives in a wooden house with her two small children.

Photo by Kirk Siegler/NPR

There are chickens everywhere, pecking at the dusty ground. Her family also raises goats and turkeys that don’t seem to be bothered by the screams of kids riding bikes and playing around them.  

The reason I’m here is to see what’s tucked behind a back corner of this modest home, near a clothesline. It’s a “trono,” Spanish slang for throne; an outhouse with a composting, dry toilet and a sign that reads (also in Spanish), “Wash your hands after use.”

The only water involved here is rain collected from the roof, used for washing in the small sink attached to the hut. The toilet is “flushed” with sawdust or whatever biomass can be found locally, such as leaves or duff from the forest.

“It gives us privacy,” Raquel Alvarez says in Spanish through an interpreter.  It’s safer and cleaner for her family than the way it was, she adds, plus you don’t have to go so far out at night.  

Before the “trono” was installed a year ago, like many of their neighbors, the family put their waste in a plastic bag and tossed it in the brush-covered hillsides behind the home.  

While this sounds troubling, it is not some unique occurrence. Sanitation is one of the biggest problems facing the developing world. Even if Ms. Alvarez and her family had indoor plumbing, it’s doubtful this area would be much cleaner – or safer – from a public health standpoint.  

Only five percent of all the wastewater in Ecuador is treated, according to the Guayaquil-based group Fundacion in Terris.

The Fundacion is one of a growing number of NGOs and government agencies around the world that are trying to change the model of sanitation and how new water infrastructure systems get planned in developing countries, assuming they get planned at all.

“The water toilets were a great invention, they saved millions of lives,” says Marcos Fioravanti, the group’s director.

But Fioravanti says they’re doing little to help the estimated 2.5 billion worldwide who either have limited or no access to sanitation largely because building expensive new infrastructure projects that support them isn’t practical.

Marcos Fioravanti stands next to one of his group’s test models. Photo by Kirk Siegler/NPR 

According to Fioravanti, bringing traditional sanitation – water toilets – to a community like Sabanilla costs about $2,000 per family, compared with $300 for a dry toilet like the one the group gave Ms. Alvarez and her family.

$300 isn’t exactly cheap either, though Fundacion in Terris has managed to distribute eight of the systems in the Sabanilla area so far – including one at its small school. The group hopes to sell most of its toilets to local NGOs or government agencies who could then distribute them.      

While the scope of the sanitation challenge here isn’t nearly as big as in countries such as India, upwards of three million Ecuadorians are still thought to fall under the category of having limited or no access to clean water or bathrooms on a daily basis.    

For now, what’s not clear is if the dry toilets that have been distributed so far are in wide use.  There are long-standing cultural norms to consider, and it’s hard to just change anything overnight.  

Driving toward Sabanilla through one of Guayaquil’s more upscale neighborhoods, I can’t help but notice as we pass an appliance store with modern, shiny, new water toilets on display in the window.   

Kirk Siegler is reporting from Ecuador on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP). This post was also published on NPR's On the Road