MAROC

Morocco’s desert oases now home to eco-friendly toilets

Students at a school in Asrir that has been labelled an 'eco-school'.
Students at a school in Asrir that has been labelled an 'eco-school'.

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Did you know that the simple act of going to the toilet could be eco-friendly? In schools scattered throughout a few oases in Morocco, it could even do wonders for the environment. That's thanks to the efforts of an NGO that has installed the new dry toilets which convert human waste into natural fertilizer.

Two years ago, Microbiona, a Moroccan NGO dedicated to microbial biotechnology and the protection of natural resources, began installing dry toilets in a high school in the province of Errachidia. Barely three months ago, the NGO fitted the same toilets in two schools in Tagounite and Asrir, in Zagora province. All these schools are located in desert oases scattered throughout the region of Drâa-Tafilalet.

Dry toilets - also called composting toilets - are already widely used in northern Europe. They don't use water to clear away waste. Instead, they put human waste to good use by turning it into natural fertilizer.

"Human waste becomes a gardening tool"

Mohammed Yacoubi Khebiza is a professor at the University of Marrakech. He's in charge of a research group studying the effects of climate change on Morocco and how the country can adapt. He personally oversaw the fitting of dry toilets in the oases schools.

In each school, we fitted eight toilets: four for the girls and four for the boys. Each toilet has three holes: one for urine in the middle, and two others for excrement. Liquid waste and solid waste can therefore be separated, which is very important.

Dry toilets in Tagounite fitted by the NGO Microbiona that separate liquid and solid waste.

 

You can only use one of the two holes meant for excrement at a time. At the bottom of the other hole, meanwhile, waste is drying out. Once you're done, instead of flushing the toilet, you simply have to pour soil in the hole so that the excrement dries out quicker.

"We save money because we don't have to buy chemical fertilizer"

Once the solid waste is dry - a process that takes around one month - we are left with manure that we can spread on the ground. In spite of what you might think, it doesn't smell bad at all. This fertilizer can be used for the gardens that we've planted in the schools next to the new toilets. There are palm trees, olive trees, and vegetables - including turnips, tomatoes and carrots - that are grown there for the schoolchildren. Drought problems meant that the previous gardens had been abandoned a long time ago, but thanks to the fertilizer, they’re growing well!

As for liquid waste, the urine ends up in a reservoir where it decants. The process separates out any impurities from the 'rich' urine. Impurities are harmful, so they're burnt off. But 'rich' urine - also called 'supernatant' because it stays at the top of the reservoir - is salvaged. It goes straight into a network of pipes that are directly connected to the garden's drip irrigation system. The system consumes very little water. Urine, just like excrement, is a natural fertilizer.

'Rich' urine is salvaged via a network of pipes. Photo taken at Tagounite school.

Dry toilets therefore recycle human waste, turning it into a useful gardening tool. This process also saves money because there's no longer any need to buy chemical fertilizer. That goes a long way in a region as poor as this one.

Drip irrigation system.

"There’s no risk of soil contamination"

There's also no collective system for treating wastewater in the entire region. Instead of being treated, the water sits in septic tanks. The wastewater then seeps into the soil and contaminates the water table.

In contrast, our dry toilet reservoirs are completely watertight. That means that there's no risk of soil contamination. That was confirmed by students from my university who carried out tests on our toilets. Likewise with the manure, there's no risk of contamination because human waste can no longer harbour diseases once it's completely dried out. So in terms of health, too, our dry toilets are beneficial.

"This introduces the concept of sustainable development to the oases"

We chose to fit these toilets in schools because that's where lots of people congregate. Almost every family has a child being taught there. That makes it easier for us to get our message across to a large number of people. At the school in Asrir, where 400 pupils study, we've also put in place a system for sorting out trash and collecting rainwater. The school has now been labelled an 'eco-school'. We're seeing to it that the other schools earn the same distinction.

Organic gardens next to dry toilets at the school in Tagounite.

As well as fitting dry toilets in schools, we also try to encourage residents to install them in their own homes. After carrying out workshops and going door-to-door, our work has already started to pay off because some holiday homes have been equipped. People aren't reluctant to use these toilets because the same system had already been used in the oases in the past. But those toilets weren't watertight, so over the years the waste seeped into the soil and contaminated it.

Raising awareness of sustainable development amongst residents of Asrir.

In each locality, the cost of the project is about 30,000 euros. Sixty percent of that goes towards building the toilets, installing the equipment and planting the organic gardens. The rest goes towards raising awareness amongst the local population. Fortunately, our project has been subsidised. Yet it still costs around 200 euros just to fit dry toilets in your own home in Morocco [Editor's note: The minimum wage in Morocco is fixed at 236 euros monthly].

This initiative was uncovered by our team for France 24’s “Observers vs Climate Change” project. If you know of an initiative near where you live that’s been set up to fight climate change, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team at obsduclimat@france24.com

Post written with France 24 journalist Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).