Ecological sanitation in the World

This blog focusses on Ecological Sanitation. The site provides information on the technical, financial, environmental, health, socio-cultural, institutional, political and legal aspects important for the success of (ecological) sanitation, with an emphasis on urban solutions.

The recovery and use of urine and feces has been practiced by almost all cultures. This is why bad sanitation is a world-wide problem. The reuse was not limited to agricultural production. The Romans, for example, were aware of the bleaching attribute of the ammonia within urine and used it to whiten clothing. The most widely known reuse in agriculture has occurred in China. Reportedly, the Chinese were aware of the benefits of using excreta in crop production before 500 B.C., enabling them to sustain more people at a higher density than any other system of agriculture. The value of “night soil” as a fertilizer was recognized with well-developed systems in place to enable the collection of excreta from cities and its transportation to fields. However, its use promoted disease to such an extent that in Chinese cuisine almost all vegetables are thoroughly cooked.
Elaborate systems were developed in urban centers of Yemen enabling the separation of urine and excreta even in multi-story buildings. Feces were collected from toilets via vertical drop shafts, while urine did not enter the shaft but passed instead along a channel leading through the wall to the outside where it evaporated. Here, feces were not used in agriculture but were dried and burnt as a biofuel. In Mexico and Peru, both the Aztec and Inca cultures collected human excreta for agricultural use. In Peru, the Incas had a high regard for excreta as a fertilizer, which was stored, dried and pulverized to be utilized when planting maize. In the Middle Ages, the use of excreta and greywater was the norm. European cities were rapidly urbanizing and sanitation was becoming an increasingly serious problem, whilst at the same time the cities themselves were becoming an increasingly important source of agricultural nutrients. The practice of using the nutrients in excreta and wastewater for agriculture therefore continued in Europe into the middle of the 19th Century. Farmers, recognizing the value of excreta, were eager to get these fertilizers to increase production and urban sanitation benefited. The increasing number of research and demonstration projects for excreta reuse carried out in Sweden from the 1980s to the early 21st century aimed at developing hygienically safe closed loop sanitation systems. Similar lines of research began elsewhere, for example in Zimbabwe, in the Netherlands, Norway and Germany. These closed-loop sanitation systems became popular under the name “ecosan”, “dewats”, “desar”, and other abbreviations. They placed their emphasis on the hygenisation of the contaminated flow streams, and shifted the concept from waste disposal to resource conservation and safe reuse.