Newsletter and Technical Publications
<International Source Book On Environmentally Sound Technologies
for Wastewater and Stormwater Management>
8.11 Case studies (Topic k)
The following two case studies demonstrate the use of on-site deposal
methods that are most commonly used in the Region as well as composting toilets
that are currently being trialed. Both
studies were commissioned by SOPAC.
8.11.1 Case Study 1: Sanitation in the Federated States of Micronesia
In the 1970's the "benjo" Erepresented the state of the art in sanitary
facilities in Micronesia. There were two types: over-water and over-land. The
over-water benjo was the most conspicuous and often desecrated an otherwise
pristine beach. It consisted of a small enclosure (a privy) with a hole in the
floor elevated on poles over the intertidal zone. One would get to this facility
by negotiating various types of cat-walks (not always an easy task for the new
comer!). At low tide, the mess below these facilities was in plain view. At
high tide, one was lucky if it got washed away. The bay in Colonia, Yap, was
affectionately called "Benjo Bay" because of the prevalence of these
facilities. Similar facilities could be found over rivers (even up-stream of
bathing areas) and in mangroves (where there is little or no movement of the
water). The over-land benjo was essentially an unimproved pit latrine --- little
more than a hole in the ground with a house over it. The user of these benjos
would wish he could fly into and out of them and perform his mission without
touching anything. In many of the remote atoll islands, there were no toilet
facilities at all. The beach or bush were the bath room.
In 1983 a cholera epidemic occurred in Chuuk.
Some people say it was a blessing in disguise because it opened
people’s eyes to the possible consequences of the prevailing sanitary
practices. As a result of the epidemic,
an effort was made to outlaw benjos of all types and a massive program of
building water-sealed toilets in the remote areas was undertaken.
Hundreds of them were built such that every
household that wanted one could have one.
The Chuuk State Rural Sanitation Program by means of aid from the U.S.
government provided the materials for the construction of these
facilities. In the district centre, a
house-sewer connection program was implemented.
Although the epidemic was confined to Chuuk, other parts of
Micronesia took measures to improve the sanitary facilities on their islands as
Today, more than a decade later, it is interesting to observe the state
of affairs with respect to toilet facilities throughout Micronesia.
To be sure, the classic over-water benjo no longer exists. Has the situation
improved? What is the status of all
those water-sealed toilets that were installed?
Are other types of sanitary facilities being used?
This report attempts to answer these and
other questions. First, some cultural
factors are presented that are relevant to toilet use.
Then, three types of toilets are discussed
with particular attention being paid to their water requirements, their
potential for polluting groundwater, and their cultural acceptability.
The outer islands of Yap are closely tied to Chuuk culturally and
linguistically. Customs (and language,
especially) have little to do with Yap proper; the state boundary is a
political one. There is a continuum of
customs that varies from the most traditional in the outer islands of Yap to
the least traditional in the high islands of Chuuk proper.
The degree to which the islands follow
traditional practices probably varies something like what is indicated below:
|outer islands of Yap
Pattiw islands in Chuuk
Namonweito Atoll in Chuuk
Pafeng islands in Chuuk
Mortlock Islands in Chuuk
||high lagoon islands in Chuuk proper
In a report to the UNDP concerning the design of sanitary facilities for
Woleai Atoll in Yap State (Winter, 1991), the writer noted that:
"Three cultural factors exist that must be considered in the design of
sanitary and bathing facilities for Woleai. The first is that brothers and sisters
and, to a lesser extent, other males and females in the same household can not
use the same toilet. Separate male and female toilets must be provided.The second
is that water for toilet flushing must be available at the toilet. This is required
because defecation is a very personal matter that is never announced verbally
or, in the case of flushing a toilet, by carrying a bucket from a distant well
to the toilet. If one desires to use a toilet, he simply leaves the group he
is in without announcing the purpose of leaving. This especially applies to
women in a mixed group. This factor necessitates pumping of groundwater from
the source to the toilet facilities (because wells cannot be located adjacent
to toilets). A third factor that may be of lesser importance is that men and
women's clothing are hung in separate areas after washing. This implies a need
for a separate male and female bathing/washing areas".
On the other hand, on the high islands of Chuuk lagoon, it would not be
a problem for brothers and sisters to use the same toilet.
However, a person (especially a woman) would
be embarrassed to be seen carrying a bucket of water in the direction of a
toilet. Like so many aspects of island
cultures, it is easy for an outsider to make an assumption that is way off base
and that will seriously jeopardize the chances of success of a project.
Customs vary from island to island. All that can be said is that the person who
intends to introduce any change in lifestyle should do his best to first seek
out reactions to a proposed project from candid sources.
Island people are very polite. Often, rather than give a contrary view, a
view that could save a project from failure, people will simply be quiet.
The income level on some of the traditional islands is extremely
low. It is certain that some families can
not even afford the cost of toilet tissue.
This is a consideration that must obviously be factored into any program
directed at improving sanitary facilities.
A response to this issue is that many water-sealed toilets can tolerate
other types of paper. This solves the
financial aspect of the problem. All that is needed is a source of paper!
Like a conventional flush toilet, a water-sealed toilet employs a water trap
to seal or confine odours to the sewer pipe or waste storage area. Unlike a
conventional toilet, flushing is done manually with a bucket of water. Generally
speaking, the types of water-sealed toilets in use in Micronesia are functional
but lack the aesthetic qualities of the toilet found in the modern home. However,
compared to nothing --- the beach or bush --- they are certainly an improvement.
On the high islands of Chuuk, the water-sealed toilets promoted in the
cholera era are gradually disappearing and are not being replaced.
Some have been damaged by typhoons. In other cases, the 220 litre drum beneath
the toilet has become filled. Many have
simply deteriorated with age. According
to the former director of the Chuuk Rural Sanitation Program, there is a
feeling among the general population that it is the government’s responsibility
to replace the toilets. Rather than
reverting to use of the benjo, people are using the beach and the bush.
On one of the high islands of Chuuk, the writer
has observed a new type of benjo --- although its designers probably would not
like that designation. It consists of a
neat hollow box-like foundation of rock in the intertidal area over which a
privy is built. Although the wastes are
not exposed to view, the intertidal waters are surely contaminated with them.
Even on Weno, the commercial and governmental centre of Chuuk, it is
common at sunrise to see people of all ages, shapes, and sizes taking a walk to
the beach or bush in the early morning.
The reason is that, even though the area is sewered, toilets might not be
functional and/or there is no city water with which to flush them.
On some of the atoll islands of Chuuk there essentially are no toilet
facilities. This is at least true in
Namonweito Atoll and in the Pattiw area.
It is probably true in some other areas as well. Even though water-sealed toilets were
installed in these areas following the cholera epidemic, they were quickly
abandoned because of the previously described cultural factors.
The writer suspects (but has not confirmed) that the Mortlock Islands in
Chuuk State may make more use of water-sealed toilets.
Nama Island has fairly well developed
rainwater catchment and storage systems, the writer believes, due to the
influence of a number of Chuuk State Rural Sanitation Program employees who were
(now deceased) from that island. It is
probable that they influenced the construction of toilets as well.
In 1990, the writer spent a month on Woleai Atoll, again gathering field
data to assist him in the design of appropriate water supply and sanitation
facilities. The only toilet on that
atoll (5 inhabited islands) was for the UNV stationed on Falalop.
This trip resulted in the recommendation of
the same toilet design used in Maloelap (Winter, 1991).
However, the UNDP did not provide funds for construction of the
facilities. That was to be a local effort. The state of affairs in Woleai
had not changed in 1992 when a water supply and sanitation survey was made on 13
of the outer islands of Yap State (Seyange, 1992).
Aside from the same single toilet on Woleai, only two of the
islands in the survey group had toilets.
One of these islands had 3 water-sealed toilets, all public; the other
supposedly had 70 toilets, 45 of them being public.
The writer suspects that public toilets might not be such a good
idea owing to the prevailing cultural factors and to the problem of determining
who will clean them. However, this opinion is unconfirmed.
The writer recently made a survey of rainwater catchment and storage
systems on Pohnpei Island. Although he
was not specifically looking for toilet facilities, they did not seem
apparent. It may be that in the rural
areas of Pohnpei the bush is the prevailing sanitary facility as well.
An often cited objection to water-sealed toilets is that they require
water for flushing. This is a valid
objection if water from a household’s rainwater storage tank is used.
However, if groundwater (assumed to be
available in unlimited quantities) or seawater is used, it is not. This
approach deserves consideration by any community contemplating construction of
water-sealed toilets. Unfortunately,
toilets are often constructed without first resolving the issue of a source of
water for flushing.
Another common objection to water-sealed toilets is that they will
pollute the groundwater, especially on atoll islands.
This is indeed a valid objection.
The writer would strongly suspect that, for example, in the model
situation of Mwoakilloa, there is a high level of background contamination of
groundwater due to human waste. This
situation is probably unavoidable when toilets are sited near to closely spaced
homes. Typically, dug wells are in
place before the introduction of toilets and, typically, they are also near the
home. It is easy to see that, in a
populated community, there is a very high probability that groundwater will
become contaminated after a program of toilet building.
Ten years ago on Chuuk, when there was still
a proliferation of water-sealed toilets, the writer recalls that it was
frequently difficult to find an acceptable site for a new well because toilets
seemed to be everywhere.
There are a few approaches to this problem.
One is to only use a well for non-consumptive purposes.
Toilet flushing and washing clothes can
certainly be done with slightly contaminated water.
One can also bathe in it (if he keeps his mouth closed!).
However, this is probably an impossible rule
to enforce in the case of small children.
If one has a large enough rainwater storage tank, it might be possible
to use it for bathing except in extremely dry periods. The important point is
that, within reason, for some uses it doesn’t matter if a well is
polluted. In so far as acceptable
coliform levels are concerned, a possible guideline might be to require wells
used for non-consumptive purposes to have faecal coliform counts that would be
acceptable for recreational waters (less than 200 col/100ml).
The problem of groundwater contamination by water-sealed toilets depends
on the siting of these facilities. If
one is fortunate enough to able to locate a home in a pristine area, it is easy
to site wells and toilets properly.
This was discussed in the first section of this report.
The ventilated improved pit latrine has recently been introduced to
Chuuk State. The writer is not aware of
its use elsewhere in Micronesia. The
reason it was introduced is that it requires no water for flushing.
Thus, it eliminates the problem of water supply
which was often a concern for many of the users of water-sealed toilets.
It also has other interesting features.
A VIP toilet is really nothing more than a pit latrine (over-land benjo)
with a vent pipe added to the waste area.
The logic of the procedure is that air passing over the end of the vent
pipe will induce a draft resulting in a flow of air down the toilet and out the
vent. When not in use, the toilet seat should be closed. This prevents light
from entering the waste area by means of the toilet.
If any flies have entered the toilet, they will ultimately try to
exit via the vent pipe (flies are attracted to light).
If the vent pipe is screened, two of the
chief objections to the pit latrine can be eliminated: flies and odour.
During the early 1990’s, over 400 of these toilets were installed on the
various islands of Chuuk. In general,
they have been favourably received. The
writer had the opportunity to inspect (use) one of them that was in
service. To his surprise, it was indeed odour-free. Sometimes, it is hard to
believe that a concept really does work!
The Rural Sanitation Program in Chuuk installed these toilets.
According to its former director, the
toilets are apt to develop odours in low lying areas.
He suspects that this occurs when the groundwater table rises to
the level of the wastes in the container.
It is noted that this is not a good location for a water-sealed toilet
Personal taste is also involved in the selection of a toilet
facility. One person that the writer
spoke to concerning this type of toilet indicated that some people do not like
them because you can see the waste products in the container.
This appears to be a matter that could be
addressed in public education programs.
An important feature of this toilet is that, if toilet tissue is
unavailable, any of the wide variety of alternative traditional materials (that
can fit through the opening of the riser!) is acceptable.
As indicated in the discussion of cultural
factors, this is an important economic consideration for some families.
Although VIP toilets do not involve the addition of significant amounts
of contaminated liquids to the groundwater, it would appear that they would
still degrade groundwater quality. The
first section of this report indicated that research is required to determine
acceptable distances between water-sealed toilets and wells.
The same questions apply to VIP toilets.
VIP toilets have only been in use in Micronesia for a few years.
They are slightly simpler to maintain than
water -sealed toilets, do not require water for flushing, and will accept any
alternative to tissue that is available.
For these reasons they would appear to deserve consideration for
A number of composting toilets have been built as demonstration projects
in Micronesia (6). At least two have
been built in Yap, six in Pohnpei, and one in Kosrae.
Other pilot projects may be in progress. Composting toilets have a number of
desirable features. Like the VIP
toilet, they do not require water for operation.
However, in addition, they convert the waste into a resource that
can be use as a soil conditioner. Thus,
they cause no pollution of groundwater.
The earliest demonstration projects began in 1992.
After around two years of operation, the
users were happy with the units and report that they are pretty much
Some of composting toilet models are commercially available.
Others are based on a design developed by
Greenpeace (Rapaport, 1995). The intent
of the Greenpeace design is that it will be applicable for use in the remote
areas of Micronesia. While it does use
locally available materials, the construction of it is significantly more
complex than a VIP or water-sealed toilet.
The major unanswered question with respect to composting toilets is how
users will react to the requirement that the decomposed wastes must be removed
from them periodically and spread on the soil somewhere as a conditioner.
It may take a great deal of public education
to convince people to do this. The long
term success of the pilot projects in Micronesia still remains to be