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Eco-Friendly Latrines in Bolivia's Highlands

By Alsy Acevedo

The first time Miguel Ballon visited the highlands of La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, he was struck by the spaciousness, the snow-covered mountains in the distance and the lack of water.

Men of Chahuira Pampa, a town in the highlands of Bolivia, build eco-latrines at a community school.

Men of Chahuira Pampa, a town in the highlands of Bolivia, build eco-latrines at a community school. Rather than using water and risk contaminating underground water reserves, the latrines are designed to eventually produce compost for gardens. Photo by Óscar Leiva for CRS

Miguel lives about 125 miles away in the junglelike environment of the Bolivian lowlands, which is still considered part of the La Paz region. Space here is scant and pricey. Mountains are green and an important part of everyday life. Water abounds.

"We truly enjoy water here," Miguel says, pointing to a girl washing her hands under a water tap. "Up there, people wash their hands with drops of water."

His visit to the highlands opened his eyes to a different reality as Catholic Relief Services works to tackle the biggest issue associated with water in both the Bolivian highlands and lowlands: sanitation. CRS and our local partners are building eco-friendly latrines, installing potable water pumps and increasing awareness of hygiene practices.

This approach affects people living at opposite ends of the spectrum. In the highlands, the latrines help communities without access to water to dispose of waste in a sanitary way so they can prevent illness. In the jungle, eco-latrines provide a safe way to handle waste and prevent the contamination of water sources, which can lead to disease.

Not an Easy Sell

Latrines commonly used in Bolivia consist of a hole in the ground with walls for privacy. Eco-friendly latrines, though, have a different set of requirements, starting with construction. They are made of brick and built above the ground in two levels. The ground level serves as a vault where a pail catches waste from the level above it.

Next to that top level, by the seat on the floor, is a container of ashes from the community's burnt trash. After each use of the latrine, the user throws ashes into the latrine to neutralize odors. Over time, the waste mixed with ashes becomes manure that residents can apply to their gardens.

Although water is plenty in the Bolivian lowlands, mismanaged waste and trash are contaminating the water.

Although water is plentiful in the Bolivian lowlands, mismanaged waste and trash are contaminating the water and leading to disease. Photo by Óscar Leiva for CRS

"At first, it wasn't an easy sell," says Marcelino Limachi, who works with CRS partner Caritas El Alto to promote the project in the highlands. "It required a lot of conversations on why building and using the latrines is convenient in the long run. We are still having those conversations."

Eco-latrines do not require water to function, but even more important, they stop human waste from contaminating the soil, an effective way to prevent disease.

Because water is scarce in the highlands, residents participating in the program agree to pay a small fee for water they use for drinking and washing. As a result, the community is investing not only time and labor but money into the effort.

"The fee creates a sense of responsibility," says Alex Martínez, an engineer with CRS who manages the project in the highlands. It also provides a funding source for maintenance or expansion of latrines and tanks.

The Kids Will Make It Work

Limachi stands in the front of a fourth-grade classroom holding a big, colorful book showing kids in the highlands using latrines, picking up trash and washing their hands. He explains to the students, alternating Spanish with Aymará—an indigenous tongue that many of the children speak at home—how diseases spread.

Students at the Chahuira Pampa School learn how to wash their hands without wasting water.

Because water is scarce in the Bolivian highlands where 9-year-old Fanny Layme lives, she and other students at the Chahuira Pampa School learn how to wash their hands without wasting water. Photo by Óscar Leiva for CRS

To demonstrate proper hand-washing, he uses a large soda container filled with water. The cap has a little hole, so when the bottle is turned upside down, a stream of water flows. A teacher's assistant holds the soda container as 9-year-old Fanny Layme washes her hands over a blue bucket while following Limachi's instructions: Scrub every finger.

"Don't forget under the nails," a classmate calls out.

The soda containers are not just a portable way to bring the hand-washing demo into the classroom. They also serve as faucets outside the eco-latrines in the highlands.

"We are trying to make hand-washing a habit. It takes a lot of repetition. Adults tend to be skeptical, but the children are more open to learn," says Limachi.

The project, financed by CRS and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation, or AECID, doesn't take children's education lightly, explains Martínez. "At the end of the day," he says, "we trust the kids are the ones who will make [the project] work."

Miles away, in the lowlands, a girl comes home from school, opens a water tap on the patio and washes her hands, promptly closing the faucet as she scrubs.

Neisa Challco, 8, washes her hands using the family's new faucet.

Where water is abundant in the Bolivian lowlands, Neisa Challco, 8, washes her hands using the family's new faucet that brings water from a water system constructed through a CRS-funded project. Photo by Óscar Leiva for CRS

Her uniform, a white coat, makes her look like a tiny doctor. "The teacher says we need to wash our hands at least three times a day," says 8-year-old Neisa Challco. Then, she opens the tap and rinses.

"We can't waste water," she explains while closing the faucet. "There are kids who don't have water. If we waste it, we will all run out of it."

Preserving Water

Leaving the faucet open is not the only way to waste water, adds Miguel, who is helping his neighbors, the Challco family, build a latrine outside of their small house.

"Burning land, cutting down trees—all of those things we do dry the water," he says.

The closest water source is a 2-hour uphill hike to a waterfall. After a year of construction, an eco-friendly water system can now serve the 95 resident families, says Maria de los Angeles Lara, an engineer who manages the project in the lowlands.

Miguel is part of the Potable Water and Sanitation Committee, or CAPYS, in this community. With guidance from CRS and our partners, members of CAPYS—residents of the community where a project was implemented—oversee the construction and maintenance of latrines, waste disposals and water tanks. They meet regularly to talk about water resources, plan hygiene workshops and keep up with the finances.

Miguel's trip to the highlands was an out-of-the box initiative to put water issues at the forefront of discussion in Bolivia.

"Everything [in the highlands] was very different from here," says Miguel. "They don't have much water there. That's what I'm telling people here: We have water and we need to take care of it."

Alsy Acevedo is a CRS communications officer covering Latin America and the Caribbean. She is based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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