Ecological Latrines Catch on in Rural Cuba

Pastor Demas Rodríguez shows a dry composting toilet in the town of Babiney, in the eastern Cuban province of Granma. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Pastor Demas Rodríguez shows a dry composting toilet in the town of Babiney, in the eastern Cuban province of Granma. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
BABINEY, Cuba , Jan 31 2015 (IPS)

Most people in Cuba without toilets use the traditional outhouse. But an innovative, ecological alternative is catching on in remote rural communities.

So far 85 dry latrines have been installed in eastern Cuba – the poorest part of the country – thanks to the support of the non-governmental ecumenical Bartolomé G. Lavastida Christian Centre for Service and Training (CCSC-Lavastida) based in Santiago de Cuba, 847 km from Havana, which carries out development projects in this region.

“Over 70 percent of these toilets are in San Agustín, a town in the province of Santiago de Cuba. The rest are in Boniato and the municipality of Santiago de Cuba, in that same province; and in Caney, Babiney and Bayamo, in the province of Granma,” CCSC’s head of social projects, César Parra, told IPS.

Dry composting latrines separate urine from feces. The latter is used to produce fertiliser. They prevent the proliferation of disease-spreading vectors and the contamination of nearby sources of water, unlike the classic pit latrines that abound in the Cuban countryside.

“In eastern Cuba, we replicated the pioneering work of the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Man (FANJ),” said Parra, a veterinarian, during an exchange on permaculture among farmers in the region, held in the town of Babiney, in the province of Granma.“For us it’s been a really good thing because it doesn’t pollute, it saves a lot of water, and it provides us with natural fertiliser.” – Local farmer Marislennys Hernández

Five years ago, FANJ introduced dry latrines in Cuba as part of permaculture, a system that combines green-friendly human settlements and sustainable farms. It was involved in the construction of another 30 ecotoilets distributed in the provinces of Sancti Spíritus, Camagüey, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and the outskirts of Havana.

“At first people were sceptical, but they have seen the major advantages of these latrines such as the fact that they don’t contaminate the wells near their houses,” said Parra. “Water quality has improved, according to studies carried out in the places where the latrines have been installed.”

The latrines have been so widely accepted that “CCSC-Lavastida doesn’t have the construction capacity, resources or staff to respond to all of the requests for dry toilets” through its projects, which provide the construction material and specialised labour power.

The organisation is now putting a priority on rural families without sanitation, who live near rivers and wells. And in the cities, it benefits families who have backyard gardens.

Of Cuba’s 11.2 million people, over 94 percent had improved sanitation services in 2012. The sewage system served 35.8 percent of the population, and 58.5 percent used septic tanks and latrines. But latrines contaminate nearby water sources with feces and urine, especially if they are poorly built or maintained.

According to the latest statistics provided by the National Water Resources Institute, 79.9 percent of the 2.5 million people living in rural areas have septic tanks or latrines, while 16.8 percent have no toilets at all.

Worldwide, 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation and over one billion still practice open defecation, according to the United Nations.

In eastern Cuba’s Sierra Maestra, the country’s biggest mountain chain, much of the local population lives in remote rural areas.

And drought plagues the eastern provinces of Las Tunas, Granma, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo, the least developed part of the country.

“Dry toilets don’t waste water,” said Demas Rodríguez, the pastor of the Baptist church in Babiney, who has been here for a decade. “They’re a new experience for us, so the church has the responsibility to teach the community how to use them, and to explain their benefits.”

After using the urine-separating dry composting toilet, the users sprinkle ash, sawdust or lime down the feces hole. The urine is collected in a different compartment, also to be used as fertiliser.

“By separating liquids and solids, we keep the smell down,” said Rodríguez while showing IPS the first composting latrine built in Babiney, in the home of the Figueredo-Cruz family.

“Another dry toilet has almost been completed, and four more local families are getting the materials together to make their own,” said Leonardo R. Espinoza, a builder from Babiney who has been installing dry composting latrines and biogas plants for the beneficiaries of CCSC-Lavastida’s projects.

“In terms of materials, building the dry latrines is expensive because you need at least one cubic metre of sand, 160 concrete blocks or 800 bricks, six sacks of cement and 14 metres of steel,” he said.

Based on the lowest prices for construction materials in Cuba, it costs at least 80 dollars to build a dry toilet – and more than that, if the toilet is tiled, to improve hygiene and appearance.

Using cement blocks and reinforced concrete, Espinoza built a 60-cm high feces collection compartment, which does not drain into the ground. “The total size is estimated based on the number of users of the toilet,” he said.

Dry composting latrines have a special toilet bowl with an internal division that separates urine from feces.

Cuba does not produce the toilet bowls. CCSC-Lavastida has imported them from Mexico. But now it has obtained a mould to make cheaper, sturdier bowls using concrete. If the user can afford it, the toilets can be covered with ceramic tiles.

“In houses with foundations elevated above ground, the dry toilet can be installed inside, to facilitate access by the elderly or the disabled,” said Espinoza. “But in general they are built outside the house, and you climb up four steps to use the toilet.”

Other designs include a shower next to the toilet.

Marislennys Hernández, a 32-year-old farmer, had never heard of dry toilets until she joined the permaculture movement. She and her husband Leonel Sánchez work a 32-hectare ecological farm, La Cristina, in the rural area of El Castillito in the province of Santiago de Cuba.

“For us it’s been a really good thing because it doesn’t pollute, it saves a lot of water, and it provides us with natural fertiliser,” she told IPS.

“Three years ago we managed to build [the ecological toilet] in our house,” she said. “They should be promoted more among the rural population.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

Dumped, Abandoned, Abused: Women in India’s Mental Health Institutions

Women in India’s mental health institutions often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

Women in India’s mental health institutions often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

By Shai Venkatraman
MUMBAI, Jan 30 2015 (IPS)

Following the birth of her third child, Delhi-based entrepreneur Smita* found herself feeling “disconnected and depressed”, often for days at a stretch. “Much later I was told it was severe post-partum depression but at the time it wasn’t properly diagnosed,” she told IPS.

“My marriage was in trouble and after my symptoms showed no signs of going away, my husband was keen on a divorce, which I was resisting.”

“The nurses were unkind and cruel. I remember one time when my entire body was hurting the nurse jabbed me with an injection without even checking what the problem was.” — Smita, a former resident of an Indian mental health institution
After a therapy session, Smita was diagnosed as bi-polar, a mental disorder characterised by periods of elevated highs and lows. “No one suggested seeking a second opinion and my parents and husband stuck to that label.”

One day after she suffered a particularly severe panic attack, Smita found 10 policemen outside her door. “I was taken to a prominent mental hospital in Delhi where doctors sedated me without examination. When I surfaced after a week I found that my wallet and phone had been taken away.”

All pleas to speak to her husband and parents went unheeded.

It was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted nearly two months, much of it spent in solitary confinement. “The nurses were unkind and cruel. I remember one time when my entire body was hurting the nurse jabbed me with an injection without even checking what the problem was.”

On one occasion, when she stopped eating in protest after she was refused a phone call, she was dragged around the ward. “There were women there who told me they had been abused and molested by the staff.”

Not all the women languishing in these institutions even qualified as having mental health problems; some had simply been put there because they were having affairs, or were embroiled in property disputes with their families.

Days after she was discharged her husband filed for a divorce on the grounds that Smita was mentally unstable.

“I realised then that my husband was building up his case so he would get custody of the kids.”

Isolated and afraid, Smita did not find the strength or support to fight back. Her husband won full custody and left India with the children soon after. “My doctor says I am fine and I am not on any medication but I still carry the stigma. I have no access to my kids and I no longer trust my parents,” she told IPS.

Smita’s story points to the extent of violence women face inside mental health institutions in India. The scale was highlighted in a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, ‘Treated Worse than Animals’, which said women often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence.

Ratnaboli Ray, who has been active in the field of mental health rights in the state of West Bengal for nearly 20 years, says on average one in three women are admitted into such institutions for no reason at all. Ray is the founder of Anjali, a group that is active in three mental institutions in the state.

“Under the law all you need is a psychiatrist who is willing to certify someone as mentally ill for the person to be institutionalised,” Ray told IPS. “Many families use this as a ploy to deprive women of money, property or family life. Once they are inside those walls they become citizen-less, they lose their rights.“

Ray points to the story of Neeti who was in her early 20s when she was admitted because she said she heard voices. “When we met her she was close to 40 and fully recovered, but her family did not want her back because there were property interests involved.”

With the help of the NGO Anjali, Neeti fought for and won access to her share of family property and was able to leave the institution.

Those on the inside endure conditions that are inhumane.

“There is hardly any air or light. Unlike the male patients who are allowed some mobility within the premises, women are herded together like cattle,” says Ray. In many hospitals women are not given underclothes or sanitary pads.

Sexual abuse is rampant. “Because it is away from public space and there is an assumed lack of legitimacy in what they say, such complaints are nullified as they are ‘mad’,” adds Ray.

Unwanted pregnancies and forced abortions impact their mental or physical health. They languish for years, uncared for and unattended.

“One can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the male and female wards,” points out Vaishnavi Jaikumar, founder of The Banyan, an NGO that offers support services to the mentally ill in Chennai, capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

“You will find wives and mothers coming to visit male patients with food and fresh sets of clothes, while the women’s wards are empty.” Experts also say discharge rates are much lower when it comes to women.

The indifference towards patients is evident not just in institutions, but also at the policy level, with mental health occupying a low rung on the ladder of India’s public health system.

According to a WHO report the government spends just 0.06 percent of its health budget on mental health. Health ministry figures claim that six to seven percent of Indians suffer from psychosocial disabilities, but there is just one psychiatrist for every 343,000 people.

That ratio falls even further for psychologists, with just one trained professional for every million people in India.

Furthermore, the country has just 43 state-run mental hospitals, representing a massive deficit for a population of 1.2 billion people. With the District Mental Health Programme (DMHP) present in just 123 of India’s 650 districts, according to HRW, the forecast for those living with mental conditions is bleak.

“Behind that lack of priority is the story of how policymakers themselves stigmatise,” contends Ray. “The government itself thinks [the cause] is not worthy enough to invest money in. Unless mental health is mainstreamed with the public health system it will remain in a ghetto.”

Depression is twice as common in woman as compared to men and experts say that factors like poverty, gender discrimination and sexual violence make women far more vulnerable to mental health issues and subsequent ill-treatment in poorly run institutions.

Gopikumar of The Banyan advocates for creative solutions that are scientific and humane like Housing First in Canada, which reaches out to both the homeless and mentally ill. The Banyan is presently experimenting with community-based care models funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Canadian government.

“Our model looks at housing and inclusivity as a tool for community integration,” says Gopikumar. “The poorest in the world are people with disabilities and most of them are women. They are victims of poverty on account of both caste and gender discrimination and its time we open our eyes to the problem.”

*Name changed upon request

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida