Solving the toilet problem of Leh city

By Sonam Wangchuk LEH, May 02, 2017
While the rest of the country is campaigning for building toilets under the Swachh Bharat Mission, in Ladakh even in the remotest villages every house has always had a toilet. In fact, our toilets have been a great way of recycling nutrients, as against the modern system with its flush toilets that use large quantities of water, pollute the ground water/streams and break the nutrient cycle, making farmers dependent on chemical fertilizers, loans, losses and eventually leading to farmer suicides.

In modern times our traditional system is under pressure, as the population in Leh city explodes with rapid urbanization and many visitors from outside. On the other hand, government’s promotion of artificial fertilizers for the past many decades has devalued our home-made natural manure.  Thus Leh city starts to stink as these systems break down.

If handled cleverly the problem can still be turned into a big opportunity.  I have been observing and exploring solutions for this problem of Leh city for a long time now.  I would propose that to solve the complex problem of toilets in Leh city we should first break the problem into two parts. The need for urinals for urine only and the need for latrines which handle human faeces also. 

Why separate Urinals and latrines?

# Most people in Leh Bazaar need urinal facilities only and it is much easier to solve this first.

# Urinals are needed in large numbers whereas a relatively fewer number of latrines will do.

# Urine is clean, safe and sterile to handle while faeces is dangerous and disease prone if not handled well.

# Urine can be immediately applied as fertilizer to gardens and trees while faeces need up to two years of decomposition to make them safe.

Most of us in Ladakh think of only decomposed human or animal faeces as manure/fertilizer but scientists consider urine as a very rich and fairly balanced source of all the macro nutrients NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium), and it can particularly replace Urea the white fertilizer. However, when urine is not used freshly (like in Ladakhi toilets), the nitrogen evaporates as ammonia.  Therefore urine should be used on crops soon after collection, but it should be diluted by adding it to five to fifteen times more water or into the irrigation canal itself.

Therefore, I would propose that Leh city first solves the Urine issue by building a dozen or two urinals around crowded areas in the main city.  Such urinals can be built in very small areas without affecting the city plan. A roadside corner of 3m by 3m could be enough for a set of four small aesthetically designed urinal cubicles, two for men and two for women.  The urine can be collected in a large underground tank just under the floor of the urinal itself. It can then be pumped daily (or rather nightly) into a collection tanker truck that can take it to the farmers.  In countries like Nepal, organic farmers buy human urine as a fertilizer for roughly one rupee a litre.
Systems like these will be more appreciated if Leh is declared an organic district, we already hear such a discussion in the Leh Hill Council. This is very positive and will solve many other problems like that of toilets. 

I am presently working on the prototype of the above type of urinal but with an added feature. A solar powered system that can extract pure water out of the urine in the tank by a process of evaporation and condensation. This will produce pure distilled water which can be used for hand washing or even drinking at the public convenience facility. This will also reduce the volume of the collected urine and thus reduce the cost of transportation and storage.  Imagine a urinal in a desert like Ladakh, with no water connection, yet producing its own clean water for washing and drinking.

Once the urinal needs of Leh city are resolved then full-scale public toilet facilities could be set up not only for the Bazaar but also for all the colonies around Leh.   We often hear that in many parts of Leh people have built rental houses for migrant workers. These houses do not have toilet facilities and the seasonal migrant workers pollute the surroundings.  But I can also understand the problems of the house owners. It is almost impossible to build a healthy Ladakhi toilet in places where access to soil supply (as covering material), as well as the collection of the manure, is very difficult.  Even if they built such toilets would be very unhygienic and smelly.  Therefore, perhaps it is better that they do not have individual toilets in the house, perhaps we should instead build well-functioning community toilets in central locations of these low rent colonies. 
These community toilets could be functional facilities that not only extract water for the system (as mentioned above) but also produce bio-gas that can be used by a nearby restaurant. What’s more, the residual sludge finally left from such a plant can still become manure for the farmers.  Making biogas from human faeces is very common in China and some parts of India. 

And the good thing is that while making gas is difficult in Ladakh except in the warm summer season, the migrant labour population also comes only in this season.

For efficiency, these toilets must be handled by a private entrepreneur or a company and the Hill Council must help such companies with the land and other funding. The Himalayan Institue of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL) the alternative university coming up in Phyang would be happy to do the research work and set up a prototype in Leh city,  that can then be taken over by entrepreneurs, turning waste into wealth, a problem into an opportunity.