Cover Image
close this bookSanitation Promotion (SIDA - SDC - WSSCC - WHO, 1998, 292 p.)
close this folderPromotion through innovation
close this folderInnovative technologies
View the documentTowards an ecological approach to sanitation - Uno Winblad1
View the documentPromoting composting toilets for Pacific Islands - Leonie Crennan1
View the documentPeri-urban sanitation promotion in Mozambique - Darren Saywell1
View the documentUrine as fertilizer in Mexico City - Yoloquetzatl Ceballos1
View the documentExperimenting with dry toilets in El Salvador - Ron Sawyer1 and George Anna Clark2
View the documentMeeting demand for dry sanitation in Mexico - Ron Sawyer1
View the documentLow-cost sewerage - Duncan Mara1
View the documentWorm composting and vermitechnologies applicable to sanitation - S. Zorba Frankel1

Promoting composting toilets for Pacific Islands - Leonie Crennan1

1 Ecological Sanitation, Stockton, Australia.

This article summarises the process of introducing composting toilets in two countries of the Pacific region. The first was in Micronesia in the Republic of Kiribati 1994-1996 and the second in Polynesia in the Kingdom of Tonga 1996-1998. Although Tonga and Kiribati have some cultural and development differences, the lessons learnt in Kiribati were carried into the subsequent Tongan project.


The overall objective of the trial was to explore an innovative technology and its promotion in contexts where alternatives to existing systems were obviously needed owing to groundwater pollution. The specific objectives of the activity were to promote a sanitation technology that:

- would minimise pollution of the groundwater with pathogens or undesirable nutrients;
- would not use limited water resources;
- was easily maintained; and
- would create awareness of the value of recycling nutrients and the health risks associated with inadequate sanitation.

The technology selected was a double bin composting toilet.

The composting toilet

The composting toilet is a dry sanitation technology that requires the addition of carbonaceous material such as leaves or sawdust to be added after use. This is to obtain the necessary carbon/nitrogen balance and provide aeration for composting. After a required period for composting and destruction of any pathogens in the material, the end-product can be used as a fertiliser or disposed of safely in the ground.

The design uses an alternating bin system so one side could be used while the other side is composting (Figure 1). Any excess liquid that does not evaporate in the composting process drains through a slotted plastic pipe into a lined evapotranspiration trench and is absorbed by adjacent vegetation (Figure 2). In areas where the groundwater is high, the evapotranspiration trench is lined with builder's black plastic (polyethylene) sheeting to stop any effluent leaching down to the groundwater. (Fibreglass or ferrocement could be used instead of plastic sheeting but involves more expense and extra work.)

Figure 1a. Alternating batch composting toilet, Kiribati

Figure 1b. Alternating batch composting toilet, Kiribati

Figure 2. Evapotranspiration treatment trough of Kiribati composting toilet

Background to the Kiribati Trial

In the early 1970s on the coral atoll of South Tarawa, Kiribati (7.2 square kilometres and population in 1998 of 35 000), a reticulated sewerage system had been installed which had over time been problematic technically and culturally. It was apparent that an alternative was required. The donor agency, AusAID, did not wish to trial a new method on this densely crowded main island so a sparsely populated coral atoll 3300 kilometres from Tarawa was chosen. Kiritimati (or Faraway Island as it is known in local language) had approximately 4000 residents. As it was a large atoll (363 square kilometres), the traditional habit of defecating on the beach was effective and reasonably hygienic outside the village area, however for convenience, especially for women, on-site house toilets were desirable. Septic tank flush toilets or pit latrines were available in most government employee houses and some private homes. From the donor agency's point of view, composting toilets were appropriate because the agency was about to replace individual wells with a reticulated water supply system. The source of the reticulated system was the same groundwater and it was being polluted by seepage from the pit latrines and septic tanks. Pathogens that were causing common enteric diseases in the population were found in the groundwater. Dye tracing experiments had indicated routes of ingress from the toilets to the groundwater. The water supply project had been planned since 1982. The sanitation component was an enlightened afterthought.

Process of the Kiribati Trial

Initial meeting. Two Australian consultants, both women, visited Kiritimati for three weeks to connect with local health workers and the community. One was the designer of the toilets and the other was a community facilitator. The local counterparts were the Health Inspector and the Community Health Officer, also both women. This was the first time a sanitation system had been introduced by expatriate or local women. The team held introductory discussions using photographs and illustrations with the residents in the local meeting house (maneaba) and with women's groups and with government officials. There were to be twelve toilet units (ten in domestic locations and two at schools) trialed and after the presentations were completed, people were asked to volunteer to be participants. Fortunately, a suitable cross section of the community volunteered. The local government officials were inclined to use the project to fulfil their obligations to provide toilets for government employees, but gentle insistence by the team extended the trial to other residents.

It was obvious on this first visit that most people were interested in the new toilet because it was an aid project and it would not cost them anything to have one. It was also apparent that they would not really understand the design and its purpose until they could see a working example. The link between existing toilets and pollution of village water was demonstrated by pouring cup of vegetable dye in the bowl of a flush toilet connected to a septic tank and the colour was observed some weeks later in a nearby well. Most I-Kiribati2 did not believe the germ theory of disease transmission but had a strong aversion to faeces based on beliefs in sorcery. So they were horrified to think they might be drinking or washing in another person's body products. And some started making connections between the severe ongoing diarrhoea of their children and the well water.

2 Local name for people from the Republic of Kiribati.

Construction. Materials for construction of the toilets were then transported from Australia to Kiritimati. This took about 5 months due to irregular shipping. During the next visit of three weeks by the Australian team (the female designer and a male colleague), the toilets were constructed using local labour, and much time was spent with the participants showing them how to use and maintain the toilets. At the same time an educational video was shot by the team involving the participants and scripted by the Kiritimati counterparts. A design was prepared for a project T-shirt and poster and a song composed with the assistance of the Chief of Police (who was a poet) and the Curriculum Development Officer. The song was taught to the school children and this was filmed using a video camera. The educational materials illustrated the relationship between the use of the toilet and clean water, clean environment, fertile gardens and good health. The teachers from one of the schools choreographed a dance that demonstrated the message contained in the song. The teachers from the other school intended to compete with an “even better dance” but this did not eventuate, probably due to insufficient ongoing contact with the sanitation team. The Kiribati counterparts had to continue their other duties as Heath Inspector and Community Health Educator and probably did not give enough time to the sanitation project between visits by the Australian team members.

Further Construction and Monitoring. Four months later the Australian team members returned with the completed video, posters and T-shirts to monitor the composting process and the use and acceptance of the toilet. The donor agency had also been persuaded by the Australian team members to allow construction of three more toilets using locally available materials. The first twelve toilets had been prefabricated in Australia and did not really fit into the local environment. The prefabricated toilets required dependence on aid or imports for repairs.

The Kiribati Sanitation Promotion T-shirt - A

The Kiribati Sanitation Promotion T-shirt - B

The locally constructed toilets had thatched roofs and walls (Figure 1). The male householders collected the thatch and the women wove it for the roofs. The video was shown in all the meeting houses and was followed by discussion. There was no television or local radio on the island. Some residents had video machines in their homes. For many l-Kiribati this was the first time they had seen themselves, their neighbours or anyone from their country on the screen. This attracted a lot of interest and so easily spread the word about the toilets, the polluted water, and necessity to wash hands after defecating and before handling food. The second half of the video had an English section and showed the same type of composting toilets being used in rural and urban homes in Australia. This had quite an impact, as residents had thought this simple new technology was “only for poor backward people like us”. It was considered a status symbol to have a flush toilet although very few of them functioned for long and quickly became blocked and unusable. More people became interested in the composting toilet when they saw Australians dressed in business suits using them in modern bathrooms. The video ended with an Australian clown singing her own song about her preference for composting toilets. In a Pacific Island country where everyone is a musician, this was much appreciated. Both the Kiribati and Australian toilet songs could be heard being sung and whistled about the villages.

The posters were widely distributed but did not often appear on the walls of people's homes. With some feeling of frustration, the project team decided to sell the T-shirts. $A10 (approx. $US7) was the agreed price, quite costly in an economy where nurses only earned $30 a month, middle level public servants earned about $US 100 a fortnight, and extended families of up to twenty persons were often dependent on one wage earner. To the team's surprise, 300 T-shirts sold in a couple of days without any advertising. A message was received from a religious minister requesting that next time the T-shirts should be made with collars, as more than half his congregation were wearing them to church! The money from the sale of the T-shirts was used to buy prizes for a gardening competition. The competition was a Health Department initiative to encourage the community to eat a more balanced nutritious diet. During this visit the Australian team distributed non-hybrid flower and vegetable seeds to those interested, and assisted with fencing off areas in preparation for use of the compost.

Further monitoring. Four months later the Australian team returned to Kiritimati and participated in the opening of the fallow bin of the composting toilet to observe the end-product. This was a tense and very public event as the l-Kiribati were convinced that the excreta could not possibly transform into an acceptable fertiliser. The appearance of a sweet smelling leafy soil amazed everyone and the team were suddenly inundated with requests for toilets. The compost was tested and found to be safe and then used around fruit trees such as pawpaw and banana.

The evapotranspiration trenches were dug up to monitor what was happening to any liquid run-off from the bins. The trenches were surprisingly dry in all cases, with roots of nearby pawpaw trees observed to be growing down into the damp area at the bottom of the trench in two sites.

To ensure that the compost was safe to handle, microbiological studies were carried out throughout the trial. This process included taking fresh sample of faeces from the householders to establish what enteric diseases they were suffering from. Also, samples from the top of the pile in the toilet bin were taken to ensure that these pathogens had been excreted into the toilet, and then samples of the end-product or compost were taken to observe whether or not the composting process had destroyed the pathogens. No bacterial enteric pathogens were isolated from the compost that had matured in the fallow bin for six months. Microscopic examination demonstrated absence of all parasites found in fresh faecal samples with the exception of trichuris ova (trichuria). However none of the ova contained embryo and were therefore not infectious. Collecting faecal samples was a slow and delicate business. For cultural reasons people were very reluctant to provide body products to someone they did not know well and trust. It required many return visits and much consultation before the samples were provided.

A required time for safe composting was built into the design of the alternating bins of the toilet. This was done by estimating the volume required by an average extended family (10-20 people) for six months which allowed the fallow bin to remain untouched for six months while the active bin was in use.

End of trial. Fifteen months after the AusAID trial began, the monitoring visits by the Australian project team ceased as the donor agency decided to “see what would happen” to the programme without any external support. In the writer's opinion this was unfortunate, as the project had just started to take off in the community and the Australian team members had become familiar and accepted. The two local counterparts felt somewhat abandoned and the promotion programme slowly died. It was too soon to withdraw support for such an under-resourced and controversial project.

Expansion. Learning from this experience that ongoing promotion is necessary, the donor agency decided to install 300 composting toilets along with the reticulated water supply system. The extension project had just begun at the time of writing (March 1998) using a new expatriate sanitation team and a new composting toilet design. The Health Inspector and Community Health Educator were not included in the new team.

Outcomes from the Kiribati project

The sanitation promotion programme achieved its goals despite the short period over which it was conducted.

· A technology was introduced and trialed that does not pollute the environment either with pathogens or undesirable nutrients.

· The toilet system does not use the limited water resources for flushing.

· The toilet system is easily maintained by the household.

· Using leaves the women sweep up every day, carbon is added to the toilet. Formerly they burnt these leaves, but now they collect them in bags or baskets and leave them by the toilet.

· Emptying and disposal of the compost is also managed without problems.

· Songs, dances, videos and T-shirts were successful in creating awareness of the value of recycling nutrients, and the health risks associated with inadequate sanitation.

· Of the twelve initial imported prefabricated composting toilets, four were still being used to varying degrees two years after the promotion programme was terminated. Of the three locally built toilets, one was being used in an exemplary fashion and one occasionally. The primary cause for the non-use of toilets was lack of sustained promotion. However, other causes such as change of resident family, structural damage and septic toilets being built in adjacent meeting houses also contributed to non-use. As the l-Kiribati Health Inspector commented “it took twenty years for the septic (flush toilet) to be accepted - we can't expect everyone to like this already”.

· As a result of the trial on Kiritimati, many people on the main island of South Tarawa were interested in the composting toilet as a solution to the serious public health and environmental pollution problems. To extend the composting toilet to a densely crowed application, the main challenges would be finding sufficient bio-mass to use as a carbon additive to the toilet and space to dispose of the compost. Neither of these challenges would be prohibitive however.

Lessons learned

· Active local participation in the design and production/performance of any educational material is essential. The trial allowed technological adjustments to be made to the design that suited the cultural preferences of the community. It also indicated which methods of promotion were most effective.

· It is important to maintain the working relationships and momentum of the promotion programme during the period between the trial and the extension (which in this case was two years). This saves time, energy and money at the extension stage, validates the efforts of those involved in the trial and encourages locals to develop their own contributions to the programme in the interim. It is also a valuable monitoring period, both technically and culturally.

· Friendships and cooperative working relationships established between the Australian and I-Kiribati team and other members of the community were important determinants in the success of the promotional exercise. The I-Kinbati and most Pacific Islanders value good relations above all else, and they will politely ignore programmes that are introduced by people with whom rapport is not established. This can initially take time and patience but is well worth the effort in the long term. When the new sanitation team arrived to undertake the extension, the community reacted to another set of strangers, to the consultation process beginning all over again and to a different composting toilet design being introduced. This lack of continuity was partly due to the way tendering processes are conducted and aid projects are administered.

· It was beneficial to link the promotion to other well-established ongoing local programmes, such as the gardening competition and the nutrition and fitness project.

· In an oral society (and perhaps in most societies), story-telling in the form of dance, drama and song, and physical demonstration are far more effective in promoting new ideas than is written material.

· Graphics are effective if they are also useful, for example on a T-shirt.

· It was an empowering model for the Kiribati women to have a predominantly female team introducing a new sanitation technology. Access to women in their homes was also facilitated. However the local women leading the project needed ongoing visible external support to maintain the status of the project, as the project could have been denigrated by the local male bureaucrats and expatriate technicians as “just women's business”.

· The use of media and other interactive educational methods was important, as the residents did not feel comfortable inspecting participants' composting toilets unless the participants were closely related. This was despite assurances by the sanitation team that it was OK to do so. Again there were issues of sorcery involved.

· It is essential to ensure that conflicting programmes are not being conducted at the same time. In the Kiritimati project, introduction of the toilets to the schools did not work successfully, as none of the teachers was motivated to carry on the work of the sanitation team. At the time of the sanitation project, the government was building new houses for the teachers in the school grounds with septic tank flush toilets. This was despite the fact that existing flush toilets at the school had long been abandoned because of insufficient water for flushing and blocking of the toilet from rough materials used for anal cleansing. All the children were using the nearby beach or the bush to defecate which was a confined area and most unhygienic, especially due to the presence of hookworm. There was no tap available in this area for them to wash their hands and no associated education to do so. The children knew the teachers were using their new flush toilets and so became suspicious of the composting toilet and stopped using it.

· It is important to find common ground between the priorities of the locals and the values of the promotion team. If people don't believe in the germ theory, then one must find out what they do believe that can be targeted in the education programme. This often takes considerable detective work, as people can be reluctant to expose their beliefs to the contempt of western scientific scrutiny.

Extending the Kiribati trial to Tonga

In relation to sanitation promotion, Tonga differs from Kiribati in the following respects:

- the quality of the soil is rich and productive and therefore not so much in need of compost for use as a fertiliser;

- many people have relatives in Australia, United States, and New Zealand who send money and provide access to the wider world;

- almost every household has a toilet of some kind: pit latrine, pour flush or septic tank flush; and

- some villages have a reticulated water system.

Tonga is similar to Kiribati in the following respects:
- dependence on groundwater that is polluted by toilets;

- insufficient or inconsistent water supply for flushing;

- toilet paper being unavailable or too expensive resulting in use of materials that block the toilet;

- groundwater chemicals destroying fittings in toilets causing malfunction and leaks which wastes copious amounts of precious water;

- lack of awareness or conviction of the need for handwashing or covering food; and

- defecation by small children in and around the house.

The composting toilet trial was a joint Tonga Water Board/Ministry of Health experiment to try and find solutions to common problems. Also funded by AusAID, this trial differed from the Kiribati trial in the following aspects:

· The lead time for the Tongan trial was longer. Over several months, the Australian sanitation facilitator conducted informal in-depth discussions with a cross section of the households in the selected village on all manner of water and sanitation practices and attitudes. This allowed a more planned promotion strategy based on the resident's needs and priorities.

· Technology transfer was more comprehensive, as construction was managed entirely by a local contractor which meant that further construction could promote local business. Fifteen toilets were built from locally available materials, thirteen in private homes and one in a school and another in a school/church compound. The units were more robust, better drained and easier to empty than the Kiribati version of the design.

· To increase a sense of ownership, the first households that volunteered to be part of the trial were required to pay 100 pa'anga or $US 95 for their toilet to be built. It was too complex to have a sliding scale, so some were burdened more than others by this contribution. All except one family demonstrated an active control and management of their system.

After the experience of introducing the toilets to the schools in Kiritimati, the sanitation facilitator was reluctant to trial the system in a school or any public application. One of the schools requested to be part of the trial, as their water bills for the school's flush toilets were using half of the monthly budget. They were also having trouble with the flush toilets being blocked and overflowing when rough material was used instead of toilet paper. Contact was made with the science teacher to try and solve the problem. Boys were told they could no longer use the flush toilets and would be responsible for a new composting toilet. After use, they could not return to the classroom unless they washed their hands and the tap was in view of their classroom. After initial shyness and reluctance, the boys became most enthusiastic about the new toilet. Other classes wanted to use the toilet. The water bill for the school dropped 70%. The principal sought funding from another donor, CanadaFund, to build a unit for the girls only two months after the trial began. The education programme was tied to a UNESCO project demonstrating groundwater pollution from existing sanitation system. The news about the new toilet and its purpose spread quickly to the community through the children.

After four months of the trial, many residents expressed the opinion that a trial was unnecessary. They said they were already aware of the advantages of the new system and were waiting for expansion of the programme. However before expanding, it is necessary to observe reactions to the final stage of maintenance, that is, the removal of the compost from the fallow bins before it can be concluded that the composting toilet is an appropriate and accepted sanitation alternative for Tonga. The fallow bins should be ready for emptying at the end of 1998.


It is apparent that alternatives to established sanitation systems are needed in some circumstances. Research into these alternatives has largely been undertaken by committed individuals and small businesses and is generally in the early stages of its full potential. Thorough research and development should be encouraged and institution-ally supported to the same extent that existing systems are supported, so that in any country the most appropriate technology can be applied in each location. Selection from a range of equally accessible options should be based on a appraisal of the cultural, socio-economic and ecological context to be serviced.

Key institutions and responsible persons

Dr Leonie Crennan
Ecological Sanitation
85 Dunbar St,
Stockton, NSW 2295, Australia.
Fax: 61-2-49284082

Greg Berry
Centre for Environmental Studies
University of Tasmania
GPO Box 252C. Hobart 7001, Australia.
Fax: 61-3-62262834

Mr. Lomano Hausia
Science Teacher
St. Joseph's School
Pangai-Hihifo, Ha'apai