development social justice technology waste

Why the world needs waterless toilets

The other day I was opening a charity magazine and found an insert from Practical Action inside. It’s about toilets in Bangladesh and I’ve seen it a couple of times now. Before I start, a word of warning – if you’re reading this over lunch, maybe come back later.

The story in the flyer is about Manosha, a Bangladeshi woman with a particularly repulsive job: emptying pit latrines. These are public toilets in slum communities, each one used by 50 people a day. They need to be emptied regularly, and the only way to do that is for a ‘sweeper’ to climb in and scoop out the muck. That falls, naturally, to people with little choice about how they make a living – Manosha is a widow, and has to take whatever work she can find.

India has the same problem, reinforced by the caste system. The ‘manual scavengers’ are at the very bottom rung of that system, “considered untouchable by other untouchables” as Rose George puts it. Despite various initiatives to end the practice, India still has thousands of people working this way.

Practical Action’s flyer is a fundraising appeal, and in their call to action they write that “tackling the wider issue is complex, but it starts with protecting sweepers so that they can empty the pit-latrines safely.” There are then options to sponsor overalls and gloves, or a pump so that the latrine can be emptied from the outside. I agree that it’s important to start somewhere, and Practical Action are working on the bigger picture too, but there’s something really sad about only being able to make it safer for someone to climb into a hole full of sewage.

Of course, the ideal is that one day Indian and Bangladeshi slums might have sewer systems, piped water and flushing toilets. In reality, that’s not likely. It would be very expensive, and there’s no room to build that kind of infrastructure without clearing away people’s homes. Perhaps most importantly, there’s not enough water.


As the World Resources Institute explains, India has a water scarcity problem, and it’s getting worse. Groundwater levels are falling in 54% of the country’s wells. More and more people are getting flushing toilets and installing showers, and water use for industry is rising too. If growth continues at this rate, then by 2030 demand will overshoot supply by 50%. That’s a major problem.

There are things that India can do to free up water resources, particularly by using water more efficiently in agriculture. But one obvious way to avoid crisis later is to leapfrog the flushing toilet. Rather than moving from a pit latrine to a Western style toilet and all the massive infrastructure that lies behind the U-bend, Indian urban communities could switch to waterless toilets.

These are established technologies. They can be installed without the expense of sewers and wastewater treatment plants. Waste would be processed into fertiliser rather than ending up in rivers. Jobs would still exist in collecting and processing human waste, but nobody would actually need to come in contact with it.

There are a variety of solutions, such as the PeePoo bag or dehydrating toilets, but my favourite company working on this is Loowatt. They’re my favourite for several reasons. Firstly, their dry toilet is every bit clean and neat – and therefore as aspirational – as a flushing toilet. Second, it’s a true circular economy approach. And they’ve developed it in Madagascar. I have more experience than I’d like of pit latrines in Madagascar, so I can picture the difference they are making all too vividly.

Instead of flushing waste ‘away’, the Loowatt toilet has a waterless flush mechanism that seals waste in biodegradeable plastic and drops it into a canister. It’s odourless and uses no energy. The cartridge is emptied when needed, with the waste processed to make biogas and then compost. The pilot projects in Madagascar run as businesses where people can use the toilets, pay for hot water warmed on the biogas, or charge their phones. Waste becomes a resource, and nobody has to clean out a pit latrine again.

So let’s make a difference to those working in the world’s worst job, in the most immediate way that we can – you can support Practical Action’s campaign here. And let’s see if we can deliver a better toilet next.


    1. That’s easily done with a dehydrating toilet, which is designed to separate liquids and solids. They usually come as little cabin units that heat up in the sun and evaporate the liquids, but the same system would be even simpler if the liquids were diverted for reuse.

  1. Nearly two years ago we (Community Development Action, Hertfordshire) had a NatSol composting toilet ( installed at the Community Garden I have been developing at St Albans. It’s an excellent unit that, so far, has given trouble free service. As you’ll see from my link, it separates liquids from solids (the liquids going to a soak-away). However we were advised that, although the resulting fertiliser is OK for fruit trees etc., it should not be put directly onto vegetable plots as it may still contain dangerous elements. Like Loowatt, it’s as clean and neat as a flushing toilet and utilises a non-energy true circular economy approach. However a major problem for poor communities is that it’s expensive: the basic unit cost us £8,000. (Raising the money for our unit was a big effort.) However, mass production plus the enormous savings from not having to instal sewers and water treatment plants should I believe be the basis for a realistic long-term solution.

    PS: anyone who’d like to view (or use!) our unit might like to contact Jeremy who can put them in touch with me.

    1. Good to hear the Community Garden is going well – I remember the beautiful hand-drawn plan of the site you showed me in the pub that time. I’ve heard similar things about liquid fertiliser, and the advice I’d heard was that it was better used as a compost activator. I don’t know about that, but I do know that most people don’t want their toilets to be a hands-on affair either way, and that evaporating or soaking away is the most likely solution in most cases!

      Yes, that’s quite a steep price, but it’s also a UK price. I imagine the same technology could be fitted for much less in developing countries. It can also be paid for if it runs as a business, as Loowatt have shown. Price it appropriately, and even the poorest are willing and able to pay to use a decent toilet. If the waste can be processed into compost, that becomes a product with value too, and that all helps to pay for it.

  2. separating toilets can be manufactured for a couple of dollars. i use one on my sailboat. best mod i made. uses a milk jug to collect liquids and bucket, the solids.

  3. separett makes a holiday toilet that could replace toilets at home with slight mods. changes sewer and building specs considerably.

  4. it could be manufactered in quantity for home use for a few dollars. would have to dispose of bag occasionally but we’d get used to especially if toilet automatically sealed bag.

  5. jeremy it is a wonderful idea and we do need to work a lot in this regard and perhaps the more and better education for the people of south east asia would bring them on the platforms the intellectuals like you are hoping them for being there,the contraction of the education needs to be eliminated and the flow of brilliant ideas is only possible with the rays of education,in my opinion the education itself is a blessing capable of doing away all repulsion from human lives

    1. You may be right, education will help. I also think that small businesses operating in the areas where people live can demonstrate the alternative. Most people don’t know that there are other choices between a pit latrine and a flush toilet.

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