How One Organization Is Using Sustainable Development Policies to Improve Sanitation in Nicaragua

Sabana Grande or The Community

Sabana Grande is a community in Northern Nicaragua within the municipality of Totogalpa. Currently, people living there and in most rural communities across Nicaragua are using pit latrines. Pit Latrines are not impermeable, and thus allow bacteria from the waste collected to escape from the latrine. The bacteria can get into the surrounding soils and eventually make their way into the ground water. Another problem associated with pit latrines is that once they are full, there is no way for them to be emptied. This means that families have to build new latrines whenever their old ones fill up (which can take only two years), resulting in a lack of space as well as a necessary financial investment. In order to take on this problem, a local organization, Grupo Fenix, is starting a pilot run of letrinas secas ecologicos, or “dry eco latrines” in English.

Local Organization

Grupo Fenix is an organization that was founded in 1996 at the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería in Managua with the focus of bringing renewable energy technologies into the rural parts of Nicaragua. Since its founding, Grupo Fenix has grown and developed into much more than just renewable energy technologies and has become an organization of groups with a variety of focuses based in Managua, Sabana Grande and the United States. One of the key aspects of Grupo Fenix is its local and community core which ensure that it works on projects that are important to and successful for the people they are aiming to serve. This has led to a partnership with Las Mujeres Solares de Totogalpa, a group of women who work on building solar cookers and food dryers as well as improving their traditional ovens and stoves. These projects have made a huge impact on the community, allowing women to spend less time in the kitchen, making their time their safer and improving efficiencies of the stoves. Another group is located at the Solar Center, run by Jorge and Oscar, which builds and installs solar panels around the area. It also builds small-scale solar panels that can be used as phone chargers, has built a solar water distiller in order to get distilled water for the solar panel batteries and has made a solar water heating system, as well as a variety of other projects.

Their Approach

The specific group that is taking on the issue of improving sanitation in the community is Promotores Solares Agroecologicos (PSAE). PSAE has a group of ten men and women that make up its natural construction team. They have built a variety of things in the community, most notably at “Solar Mountain”, an area that was reforested and is used as a community center for sharing knowledge about sustainable practices. At Solar Mountain, PSAE has already built two dry latrines which are currently in use. Meg Slattery, who has been working with PSAE since 2015, has shared some more information and insight on the project.

Interest for the dry latrine project was sparked in 2016 when Alyssa Jenkins, a graduate student at the University of Dayton who was writing her Master’s thesis in civil engineering on WASHtech and the Appropriate Technology Framework and Technology Introduction Process, went to Sabana Grande and wanted to use the dry latrines as an example in the community. The University of Dayton has a long-standing relationship with Grupo Fenix and many students as well as professors volunteer in Sabana Grande each summer.

After this interest was sparked, a survey of 409 homes in the communities of Sabana Grande and Santo Domingo was completed by three local community members as well as Alyssa, Meg, and two other University of Dayton students. This survey collected data on the sizes of families and their experience with traditional pit latrines while also providing the families with information about the dry latrines. Meg went to about 70 houses and said that “nearly everyone we spoke to understood the concept and benefits of the dry latrine (evidenced by the questions they asked) and wanted more information.”

As stated earlier, Grupo Fenix is dedicated to community involvement and that really shows through in this project. Out of the 10 people working on this project, only Meg is from the United States and the rest are all from the community. Meg summarized the importance of this involvement very well in stating, “in any literature you read about WASH in developing countries, having local champions who promote a new technology is crucial to the success of a project. In our case, local members of the community not only promote the technology, they are the ones who are building them, which I think makes acceptance and interest on behalf of the rest of the community much stronger. The result is that work-of-mouth is very effective in promoting the technology, because everyone knows the construction team and they get asked about the latrines a lot.”

PSAE is currently carrying out their pilot test of the dry latrines with three located in homes throughout the community, one in the public health center, and one in the Center for Alternative Rural Education (CEAR), which is run by INPRHU, the largest NGO in Nicaragua. These five latrines are currently in the construction phase and have two chambers and a urine separator. The two-chamber model allows for constant use of the latrine because, as the waste in one chamber is composting, the other chamber is in use. Once completed, the latrines will contain graphics to help educate users on proper use, maintenance and the benefits associated with the dry latrines. Workshops will be held for the families and organizations who receive the latrines. Some specific feedback that Meg and PSAE are looking for: “if [the families/organizations] are happy with their experience, if people understand how to use [the latrines], if the sizes are appropriate for the amount of people using the latrine, or if there are other improvements people would like to see.” Many of the community members have shown interest in utilizing the compost as fertilizer. PSAE plans to demonstrate the additional composting process they currently use at the Solar Center latrines to ensure that the compost is safe for use a a fertilizer. After this extra step, the families will either be able to use the fertilizer themselves or sell it (Solar Mountain has sold compost at eight córdobas (approximately $0.30 USD per pound).

Next Steps

Moving forward, PSAE is looking for sources of funding so they will be able to build more dry latrines throughout the community during the next dry season. If they are unable to secure such funding, they are considering a fund, learn and build model. This is where an outside organization (often a university( sends down some interested participants who are taught how to build the project by members of the community and their cost of participation funds the project. This practice was used to build the latrine at the health center and is used frequently at the Solar Center within Grupo Fenix. Whichever way the project moves, forward, it will definitely be a project to keep an eye on!

They also have a fundraising campaign if you would like to help fund their next round of dry latrines!

Find out more about Grupo Fenix at their website.