A Dry Bathroom for a Dry Land

I duck under the tin roof of the cooking enclosure and my lungs immediately fill with smoke.  Gabby is explaining how they use the ash from the cooking fires in their newly installed dry bathrooms at the #131 Secondary School of San Miguel Suchixtepec.  We are 8,000 feet above sea level, and surrounded by swaying pine trees.  “Are you sure you understand what I say?”, she asks emphatically.  Gabby is the children’s English teacher, and is worried I won’t understand her accent.  I assure her that I do as I accept a warm pile of ash and blackened cinders.  “We get the ash from the cooking fires, and use it in the bathroom”.  I thank her for showing me, and we rejoin the group.

Photo credit: Kathleen Gorman

Water shortages disrupt the normal flow of life

I’m here in the high mountains of the Mexican state of Oaxaca with a group of graduate students.  It’s January, which means the dry season.  Like other locations in this region, water shortages are a constant concern.  That means there may be limited water for drinking, but also for irrigating crops, and for sanitary services (like pushing human waste through pipes).  This latter predicament was the special concern of school administrators several years ago at #131, one which disrupted the normal flow of daily life.  “The [Oaxacan] state government would only provide funding to build traditional flush toilets for the children” explains the school administrator earlier in the day.  “We had the facilities, but not the water to use them.  As a result, the children had to use the woods.  Boys went to one side of the mountain, girls the other.”  He’s speaking through our translator Sebastian, who mimics the administrator’s gesture, pointing first to the east, and then to the west.  “Now, things are different”.

Dry bathrooms are a solution

Dry bathrooms are a simple and ingenious solution to the problem of water shortage for sanitation. Here at the school, the children explain how solid waste enters into one chamber and is then covered with ash and sawdust.  This is done to reduce the smell and mess.  When the chamber is full, this mixture can be sanitized and converted to fertilizer using a special process.  After this, they take us behind the bathrooms to a little alcove filled with giant black plastic tanks.  “This is where we store and process the urine”, they explain without even the hint of a giggle.  Through a self-designed system of pvc pipes and valves we can see how the urine is transported.  “Here we mix it with vinegar to sanitize it, and then we age it for several years.”

Photo credit: Kathleen Gorman

Photo credit: Kathleen Gorman

Photo credit: Kathleen Gorman

This is the secret to the school’s many flourishing gardens.  Once the urine reaches the appropriate vintage, it is bottled and used as high-value plant food.  The students themselves distribute this mixture to their gardens filled with local medicinal plants and flowers.  “At first I wasn’t sure about using urine”, remarks one of our student guides, “but now I just think it’s normal, and I enjoy learning about the plants”.

What the students already know: the solution is holistic and their school is awesome

It’s at this point that I realize this is so much more than a solution to the water shortage.  This has become part of the fabric of the school community, and a source of pride.  The children leading our tour are keepers of specialized knowledge that is positively impacting their community and their families.  As one student tells us, “Now we have a dry bathroom at home”.  As we sit through a brief assembly at the end of our visit the students exhibit the kind of disinterest one would expect from a group of teenagers at an assembly, as we tell them how amazing their school is and thank them for sharing their knowledge.  However, I like to think this is more than your average teenage disaffection, but is really that they don’t need to be told how awesome their school is, because they already know it.

About Clifton Staples

I'm a graduate student at the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College in New York. When I'm not studying, I work for Cornell University in conjunction with the Hudson River Estuary Program building resilience to Climate Change in the Hudson Valley.