A new initiative in South Africa is testing practical, community-scale ways to use urine as a fertiliser. The initiative is part of new project funded by the Gates Foundation.
After installing about 90 000 urine-diversion toilets in home gardens, the port city of Durban now wants to install 20-litre (quart) containers on 500 of the toilets to capture urine, which can be turned into fertiliser.
Although a news item about the initiative claimed that the municipality would be paying households about around R30 (US$ 4.40) for a week’s supply of urine, the project coordinator Bastian Etter from Eawag, says that this is “an invention of a journalist of Agence France Presse (AFP) and not the strategy of the eThekwini Municipality”. “Neither the eThekwini Municipality nor our research team has set up a compensation scheme for collected urine”, Mr. Etter said in an e-mail.
The project is part of a four-year US$ 3 million project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and being implemented by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) and the eThekwini Water and Sanitation utility (EWS) in South Africa.
“If we can turn the toilets into a source of revenue, then they will want to use the toilets,” said Neil MacLeod, Durban’s head of water and sanitation.
Most people, however, are reluctant to use dry toilets for socio-cultural reasons.
In the sprawling township of Inanda, residents have ripped doors and roofs off the outhouses, annexed them to the main house, or completely stripped them away. Discussing bodily fluids is so taboo that people are reluctant to explain their discomfort. One young mother accused thieves of stealing “the door and the toilet” from her outhouse, which she now uses as a garage.
“When the (city) council brings the toilets to them, they look at it as an inferior system,” said Lucky Sibiya, an outreach officer with the water department. “People don’t understand how important it is,” he said. “There is a belief saying that touching the faeces brings misfortune.”
As soon as they can afford it, people invest in a septic tank and abandon the dry toilets, which require spreading a layer of sand after each use and using separate sections for the urine and the solid waste. The tanks then must be emptied regularly.
The acceptance of dry toilets is greater in rural than in urban areas.
“They work well in rural areas because the fertiliser produced from the urine and the faeces is used locally,” said Pierre-Yves Oger, a water and sanitation consultant based in South Africa. “But in urban areas, there’s a dissociation between the producer (of the waste) and the user of the recycled products, and it’s very hard to overcome the psychological block,” he said. There may not be much choice, however, as South Africa is a water-stressed country.
Historically, urine has had several uses besides as fertiliser. When urine is allowed to stand, ammonia is formed which the ancient Romans used as a bleaching agent. It became so valuable that the Roman emperor Nero instituted a tax (vectigal urinae) on the urine industry. Urine was also used in the tanning industry and in the manufacture of gunpowder.
Centuries ago, alchemists spent much time trying to extract gold from urine. Now, many consider urine so valuable as a fertiliser that they have named it “yellow gold”.
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