Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

PooTube: A Video Tour of the Dirty, Dangerous World of Latrine Emptying

November 15, 2011

This week, in addition to announcing new advocacy partnerships with organizations such as WASH United, we’re partnering with other powerful advocates, including , the World Toilet Organization,, Acumen Fund, Water for People, and ONE, to “Talk Sh*t All Week”.

Today, Frank Rijsberman talks about a key challenge in the sanitation sector, manual latrine emptying. On Thursday, Frank will discuss what the foundation’s partners and grantees are doing to create affordable mechanical emptying solutions that can potentially create thousands of well-paid jobs in cities across the developing world.

Manual latrine emptying must be one of the world’s worst jobs. If you don’t believe me, watch this World Bank video of one day in the life of Patrick Mburu.  (Viewer advisory:  A strong stomach is required.)  

Patrick works in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, where he bravely uses buckets to scoop up a foul-smelling, toxic brew of stale urine and fecal sludge from makeshift septic tanks and pit latrines.  It’s a job that no one really wants. To earn his pay, Patrick often wades up to his armpits into a substance that teems with dangerous and potentially deadly pathogens. Public health experts estimate that fecal contamination is the underlying source of a majority of infections worldwide.

But Patrick’s hands-on approach is still the only affordable option to drain about 200 million septic tanks in developing nations. Some countries, such as India, have tried to outlaw “manual scavenging,” yet the informal industry continues to flourish – employing an estimated 800,000 people in India alone – because there is no viable alternative. 

Attempts to ban manual emptying have simply driven the trade underground while further stigmatizing the hard-working people who making their living selling sanitation services. 

Unless we find better solutions, consumer demand for manual emptying will only grow. The world is rapidly urbanizing, and the fastest rates of urban growth are happening in the poorest nations of Africa and Asia, where national governments and local municipalities simply can’t afford the huge cost of connecting everyone’s toilet to a massive sewer system. 

As a result, urban households and apartment complexes dig their own on-site latrines, and these latrines inevitably fill up with human waste. 

Patrick provides Kibera’s residents with a relatively affordable stop-gap, but he doesn’t have the means to safely dispose of the waste he collects. All too often, sanitation workers simply pour the waste that they scoop out of a concrete-lined latrine into a fresh hole dug in another corner of the property. Or they load it into tubs attached to pick-up trucks and donkey carts, and then dump it a nearby field or by the side of a river. If you are wondering about the potential health and environmental impacts of this persistent practice, imagine this: some sanitation transports can hold the concentrated equivalent of 5,000 human bowel movements.

One potential alternative to manual emptying could be some variation on the vacuum truck. In the United States and other wealthy nations, we use vacuum trucks to drain the septic tanks of homes located beyond the range of municipal sewer systems.   

Let’s say I live in outer suburbs of Seattle, St. Louis, or St. Petersburg – far enough away from the big city to enjoy starry skies at night. Rather than flushing my family’s waste into an elaborate network of sewer pipes, it’s likely that my toilet spills its contents into a stand-alone septic tank that is buried somewhere in my yard. 

Once every two or three years, a mid-sized truck, shaped a lot like a heating oil delivery vehicle, will pull into my driveway.  A sanitation professional – often a small, independent business person – will jump out of the vehicle, use a shovel to dig up the lid to my septic tank, and insert a long suction hose, powered by the truck’s diesel engine, to extract my family’s waste and then deliver it safely to a local treatment plant. 

The driver might charge me $200 or so for the basic service, and the local treatment plan could add a surcharge of 10 cents per gallon for taking on the work of processing my family’s waste. Altogether, we may pay $300-$400 for the cost of having our septic tank emptied, roughly equal to $100 per year.

Some African and Asian entrepreneurs import vacuum trucks from Europe and North America so that they can provide mechanical emptying services to urban consumers in the developing world. And data that we have collected suggest that many of these operators can provide mechanical emptying services for as little as $50.

Sounds like a reasonable cost, right? 

Well, it’s unaffordable for the millions of households in Kenya and elsewhere in the developing world where parents make less than $2 per day and need to manage the costs of feeding and clothing their children and sending them to school. There’s not a lot left over to pay for sanitation services. Also, in many high-density informal settlements like Kibera, it’s impossible to fit a normal-sized vacuum truck into narrow streets and passageways that are a common feature of slum geography.

Looking at various cost data, we have calculated that an affordable cost emptying for pit latrines in developing nations is closer to $10, or about what Patrick would charge. And we believe that until our grantees and partners succeed in creating the aspirational “toilet of tomorrow” – i.e., a low-cost, stand-alone toilet that can process human waste and safely break down our bio-matter into fertilizers, salts, and other materials that can be efficiently collected and sold – we will need to find ways to make mechanical extraction services more available and affordable.

To learn more about what the foundation and its partners are doing to address this challenge, tune in again Thursday and read my companion post on mechanical emptying, “The Road to Better Sanitation.”

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