November 2012

Yesterday (October 19th) was the United Nations’ designated World Toilet Day.  While it is maybe not the most appealing over-the-dinner-table subject, there are many many reasons to devote time to thinking about – and re-thinking the design of – our toilets.

There are sanitary, environmental and social reasons to dedicate time and resources to creating accessible and appropriately functioning toilets.  Proper disposal of waste prevents spreading contagious diseases, untreated and unprocessed raw sewage contaminates fresh water, and our society just doesn’t accept people  – especially women – just going anywhere.  Venturing out into the dark to find a place to relieve yourself can be a very scary venture as a single woman.  But while they have drastically improved our quality of life, toilets as most of us know them also have some serious environmental consequences.  Toilets help us reduce the spread of disease and contaminants in our own home and property, but the sewage systems in industrialized countries createa a  – not-in-my-backyard problem of many peoples small amounts of waste and bringing it all together in massive pools that then need chemical treatment to process and use billions of gallons of fresh water in the process.  There are in fact many other solutions to disposing of our waste – in our own backyards – and even turning it into products with net gain.  Composting toilets provide social and sanitary solutions to our waste issues and also have many potential environmental benefits.  And with some recent attention and funding from the Bill Gates foundation, toilets may soon earn us profits by creating electricity and producing high protein animal feed!

Here is a slide show of some of my favorite Nicaraguan composting toilets:

 This is a hand made seat for a dry composting toilet.  A dry composting toilet, or baño seco, separates the urine from solid waste and doesn’t use any potable water to operate.  Urine alone is a sterile, nitrogen-packed liquid, and breaks down quickly, so once it is separated it can be drained directly into a garden (best if the hose is moved around every now and then) or deposited into a bucket which can be emptied over a compost or fermented and applied directly to young crops.  The solid waste falls into a container beneath the toilet.  The container should be large enough to take at least a year to fill, and then the seat disconnects and moves over a second container.  The filled container is capped and left to decompose over another year, at which point any harmful bacteria is burnt up in the fermenting process and it is a dry, rich organic fertilizer.

The composting toilet is on a slope so the containers of dry waste can be accessed when they are full.

A distinct benefit to the dry composting toilet over the standard outhouse is that it is the presence of urine that creates the foul odor associated with raw sewage, and so this outhouse has an earthy, fermented smell but it’s not unpleasant.  Even though the design avoids any direct handling of contaminated waste, it is still recommended to use the finished fertilizer on perrenial crops or forage.  This particular dry composting toilet is in coffee country, and so the family has directed both the urine hose and the dry fertilizer to their coffee plants.


These dry separating toilets have become very popular in the region.  Raleigh International, a british based organization that has been doing water projects in the area for years, recently helped to build and install 40 more toilets in a nearby community.  This time they worked with a design that can be more easily mass produced than the hand built clay toilet seat – a concrete seat and base with metal walls.


A few years ago a friend near us who owns the Barca de Oro Hostal on the Las Peñitas beach built four beautiful bamboo cabins with composting toilets in a lush green yard behind the hostal.  She worked with a local fiberglass craftsman to create a system that fit her needs.  Here is a rather glowing picture of the toilet, with the daylight dramatically lighting up the fixture in the dim light of the cabin.  In her system, there is a system of pvc tubes that take the urine to a point far away from the cabins.  A detachable fiberglass tank is fitted underneath the bathroom, so that instead of needing the space to put two containers in the bathroom, the filled fiberglass take is removed, capped and left to decompose and an empty one is attached.

The new methane producing systems have ceramic bowls and don’t separate waste.




Other than producing fertilizer, composting toilets can also produce methane, which can be used as cooking fuel.  Also created using animal manure in bio-digestors, methane provides rural Nicaraguan women with an alternative to burning wood fuel for cooking – eliminated smoke and soot from the kitchen and improving the family’s risks of respiratory illness.  One of the coffee cooperatives in the Jinotega has given members access to this type of composting toilet – and last Christmas when we went up to pick coffee for a few days we were treated to a breakfast cooked on fuel we helped produce!

The sealed tank outside holds all the waste and has space to collect the methane. When it fills the fermented solids can also be used as fertilizer.

Includes a clean new stovetop!



This year we weren’t the only vehicle offering rides to members of the village – so nearly everyone had a space if they wanted to ride!

The focus of the last few days for both Nick and I has been to fulfill our civic duties of voting.  Since Nick just got his Nicaraguan citizenship in April, this was the first time during his 20-something years in Nicaragua that he got to enter the polls and cast a vote.  Even though we live in León, he chose to register to vote in the town of Achuapa, a much smaller village in the northernmost part of the department of León, where he first came and lived.  Every election he makes a point of helping his friends in the rural villages get to the polls by driving a 4X4 truck to help the people who would have difficulties walking the 5km between the village and the polls, so it made sense for him to register to vote there too.

For me, voting was a very different struggle.  I anticipated being well prepared and voting months ago, since the information on absentee voting in the states said ballots were sent out 45 days before the election.  When I failed to receive my ballot I checked my local board of elections page – it said 35 days before the election.  So I held onto hope that it would come to my US address before I left for Nicaragua, but it didn’t.  When I got here and called my board of elections to ask what to do, they said they would express mail a ballot to Nicaragua.  That was two weeks ago.  It never arrived.  So, very concerned that even though I started working on this over two months ago I wasn’t going to be able to vote after all, I called the embassy here in Managua.  And they told me what I should have done two weeks ago: fill out a Federal Emergency Write-in Ballot.

The difference is that when you register for the write-in ballot, it only has spaces to choose candidates for president, senate and congress.  For all local candidates there are blank spaces to write in the names of the candidates.  Luckily my parents had by this point received the absentee ballot I requested two months before, and they sent me a scan so I had the names of the candidates for local judges, state senate, etc.  Among all my American friends here, I was the last to not have voted, and by Friday I knew it was down to the wire.  Since my county requires ballots to be postmarked by the US postal service by today, I decided to make the trip to Managua and deliver my ballot to the embassy where they postmark mail the day they receive it rather than risk sending it from a mail service in León.  I was a bit stressed and embarrassed to have let this go until the last minute, and very frustrated as the clock ticked by on Friday when the internet here kept crashing and preventing me from printing out the official envelopes and ballot I needed before the bus left to Managua.  I felt much better when I finally made it to the Embassy with my ballot all filled out and printed on time and found another 15 or so Americans inside, struggling to use the one computer available to vote and even register!!  So, if all goes well and the Embassy does its job of postmarking and getting the ballots to the states in a diplomatic pouch (est. 7-10 days to arrive), I will have fulfilled the requirements for absentee voting in my county and it will be counted!  Certainly the most stressful ballot I’ve ever cast, but it’s good to know now about the Emergency ballot – and that it works (hopefully!)

Nick, Marcelino, and Lencho before going in to vote. Look behind them at the gate for the poll – no line!

Nick also knew he had to travel in order to be able to vote, and so he booked his flights coming home from a conference on Cooperatives in England with an extra long layover to reduce the risk of missing a flight.  It worked, and I met him at the airport at 9pm on Saturday to drive 4 hours up to Achuapa.  On our trip up for the presidential elections last year, there was tangible tension in the community and at the polls between members of the three main political parties.  Because of multiple ballots for different elections (presidential, representatives for the OAS, etc.) there were long lines and some people waited for hours before voting.  At some polls, there were skirmishes when the results were announced and in one of the 22 polling stations in the municipality there was an attempt to sabotage the case of ballots as they were transported from the rural voting station to the town.

Getting out to vote is a social event here. Even though there wasn’t much waiting on line this year, people who made the trip to vote still hung out afterward outside the polls. Here Nick and a whole score of voters show off their stamped thumbs – proof they voted!

This year, for the mayoral elections, the process was smoother and there was less tension and much less waiting in lines, although at the end of the evening the groups waiting in the dark outside the polls for the results still felt nervous about whether there would be a violent reaction to the results.  Instead of waiting for the results at the rural polling station, we drove down the mountain to the town of Achuapa, where there were crowds outside the house there they wrote the results of each polling station up in marker on big pieces of white paper.  The news was – peaceful elections across the municipality.  With the results in from about three quarters of the polling stations there was a clear majority of votes from the Sandinista party, which meant that the current mayor was re-elected for another 4 year term.  In the San Nicolas polling station where Nick voted, of 505 votes cast 66.53% voted to reelect David Figueroa, and in the total municipality of Achuapa of 6,956 votes cast he won with a 61.34% majority.  The reports for the national elections were delayed, possibly in an attempt to prevent violence among the crowds still gathered at polling stations intil after midnight.  The result – an overwhelming sweep across the nation of Sandinista mayors.  Of note – one victory on the atlantic coast for a mayor from the Yatama party, an Miskito political party whose name means “Children of Mother Earth”, that have participated in elections here since 1990.

Nick waits on line to vote for the first time along with friends he has known for over twenty years!

Again, for several reasons the process of voting in Nicaragua impressed me.  The number of volunteers needed to run the polling station is enormous – members of the village left at 4am to walk in the dark for two hours to volunteer as back-up poll workers – essentially to sit around all day and wait until someone else who is checking off names or stamping fingers to take a bathroom break.  The primary poll workers were required to arrive the night before, and to sleep on mats in the polling stations in order to safeguard the ballots and get set up to open at 7am the next day.  In the village where we were, every single eligible voter who we spoke with made it to the polls, regardless of age, disability, or illness.  This young democracy is energized – the civic right to vote is taken very seriously, and just the sheer undertaking of making voting accessible in rural communities that have no electricity, no phone signal, and nearly impassible roads requires an enormous amount of organization and training.  As in all democracies (including my own!) there are many opportunities for improvement.  There are always those stories of voters names missing from the list, dodgy management of polling stations or ballots, and even more concerning death threats of candidates – and apparently the mayor of Achuapa received such a death threat a week ago as he was running for reelection for the first time since the amendment two years ago which allows for reelection.  As I have heard many people here say, elections are really a type of peaceful warfare.

Back in the village, a “yay peaceful elections (and riding in trucks!) are so much fun” celebratory dance to traditional Nicaraguan folk music.

An interesting result of being in a developing country is the unequal access to information available due to rapid – but uneven – advanced in technology.  Three and half years ago when I first visited the rural villages in Achuapa, there was no electricity and not even solar panels.  The houses were all illuminated with kerosene lamps, and battery powered radios brought the national and international news.  About two years ago each of the 26 houses of Lagartillo received a solar panel from a municipal project, and then less than a year later the government installed a new electrical line and now the houses all sport light bulbs, blenders, and of course – televisions.  This year after voting, many villagers returned to their houses and turned on the news, like most of us will do tomorrow.  The difference being that here the infrastructure for instantaneous communication hasn’t reached all parts equally.  So in the village, families could watch the instantaneous results from the mayoral election in the capital city on the national news, but with no local TV station and still no phone signal in the village the results of their own local mayoral election were still hours away from arriving.

The first reports from the Supreme Electoral Counsel report a national participation in the mayoral elections of 57%.  Last year they reported above 80% participation for the presidential elections, an election which compelled many Nicaraguans from abroad since there is no absentee voting here.  Tomorrow we will find out how the US compares with participation.   For all you at home, and especially those in the Northeast who, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy are maybe facing logistical difficulties to go vote, take some inspiration from our Nicaraguan friends who don’t think twice about walking for kilometers on dirt roads before dawn to participate in their democracy, and make it a priority to vote tomorrow!