Getting the Health and Sanitation Message Across Floating Villages

By: UNIID SEA - 2014-06-26

Project Brief 

Live & Learn Cambodia, together with the Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB), designed and built a Floating Community Waste Management Station. The project aimed to address several problems faced by the residents of the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia. Specifically, it intends to capture harmful human waste from the floating toilet before it can degrade the water quality of the Tonle Sap and its surrounding environment; treat water using appropriate technologies and techniques for return to the environment; and where feasible, safely reuse and recycle wastes. 

The project also aimed to provide a platform for the development of new and innovative technologies and management practices for the floating communities, where methods and technologies can be scaled up, if the community so chooses. It also sought to offer solutions for waste management that are culturally appropriate, reliable, economically efficient, and environmentally viable for the future. 

the Process 

The project team developed a positive relationship with the Phat Sanday Commune in Kampong Thom Province, which allowed them to deeply understand the community’s idea of sanitation and develop a culturally appropriate sanitation solution for the floating communities. 

A comprehensive review of existing sanitation options used around the world in floating and land-based situations was conducted. The project team built and tested 13 prototype floating latrines and regularly followed up their use. Each new prototype incorporated improvements learned from the construction and use of earlier models. The team educated the floating latrine users about the importance of total sanitation and how to use and maintain the latrine. This included classes at Phat Sanday primary and secondary schools. To evaluate the effects of the usage of the latrines, water quality testing of the water used by the Phat Sanday communities and the surrounding environment was undertaken in both high and low water level seasons. These tests demonstrated that during low-water season, the community is exposed to levels of e.coli and coliforms well above the recommended levels of the World Health Organization (WHO). 

The support provided by iBoP Asia enabled the project team to focus on dealing with waste produced from the floating latrine. While the research showed that the waste is safe to be disposed or used as fertilizer after some storage time, the community saw this as a burden to their households and thus discouraged use of latrines in the community. Hence, in order to complement the total sanitation solution, the Community-Based Floating Waste Treatment Barge was developed to facilitate storage of the waste during treatment. This process relies on the drying of the waste and the lack of oxygen to kill off the pathogens. 

With the completion of the Floating Community Waste Management Station in September 2010, the project immediately proceeded with the ongoing trial and use of the facility. 

Risks, Problems and Barriers 

Developing an affordable design that is accepted by the community and offers the opportunity of marketability is often envisaged but difficult to achieve. The floating barge projects encountered additional barriers as cultural inhibitions on human feces and urine initially posed communication challenges. The project team found that intensive communication with the community was required to have meaningful discussion of issues surrounding sanitation challenges. 

Only after this hurdle was overcome that the technical side of solving the storage problem in the sanitation solution began. The storage capacity and size of the barge was determined by the number of community members, with a required 6-month storage period prior to safe reuse as fertilizers. The EWB volunteer team from Australia used many approaches to come up with technical solutions to the storage problem. 

However, due to the community’s feedback, the project reverted to the original idea of simply storing the waste in 20-liter buckets. This experience proves that “low-tech” options often offer the best affordable design. Meanwhile, determining the strategic location of the barge in order to have a cost-effective, efficient collection and storage scheme (including its management and maintenance), posed further challenges for this innovation. The project team tackled these issues jointly with the community. 

Benefits, Outcome, and Reach 

One important outcome of the project was the increased awareness of sanitation in floating communities, which was achieved through project presentations, informal discussions and education sessions. The community was strongly engaged, as evidenced by their support to the floating barge concept and assistance on the designs. This led to a strong and mutually agreeable relationship between the project team and the community. 

This project demonstrated successful design, construction and trial of the world’s first known community-based floating human waste treatment barge. Once fully utilized, along with improved sanitation practices, the project will produce tremendous positive environmental and health impacts. 

Lessons Learned 

Community involvement was at the center of the project from inception. The community was integrated at all stages of the innovation process and provided valuable input that complemented the formal technical expertise of the engineers. It was also an important learning that with the inclusion of community members in the project team, the project achieved higher efficiency, greater participation and the uptake of the innovation was greatly enhanced. The closer the involvement of the community as members of the core project team became, the better the project developed. 

Having separate focus group discussion for men and women resulted in better participation and results. In dealing with culturally sensitive issues like sanitation, a well-thought out effort to overcome the inhibitions should be undertaken. This effort may be as simple as separating groups according to gender. 

The use of the school as a starting point within the community also proved to be successful. Michael Brown, Live & Learn project manager, states that “community involvement has been integral to the project. I feel that without it, the project would be very difficult to complete. Even if we were able to complete the project, without the involvement of the community, it would be almost certainly a failure as the solution most likely would have been inappropriate for the community’s needs.” 

The project also aims to commence community engagement on the possibilities of reuse of the treated waste as fertilizer. Options include either creating a marketplace for selling the fertilizer or experimenting on floating gardens to grow vegetables and other marketable commodities. 

the Future 

The current initiative is very small in scale and is focused on the prototyping of designs. If the Community-Led Total Sanitation and Sanitation Marketing techniques are successful in creating a demand for latrines in the floating communities, the supply of these latrines need to be improved. It plans to work with Cambodian small and medium-sized enterprises that can manufacture and sell latrines to floating communities. It also plans to follow similar Sanitation Marketing methods for land-based latrines currently undertaken in Cambodia by other organizations. 

About the Author

UNIID-SEA works with universities and research councils in Southeast Asia to promote action research and facilitate the development of programs that support innovation for inclusive development (IID). Contact Info: Ateneo School of Government Pacifico Ortiz Hall, Fr. Arrupe Road, Social Development Complex, Ateneo De Manila University, Loyola Heights, Quezon City, Philippines 1108 Tel: +63 2 426 6001 locals 4646, 4639 Telefax: +63 2 929 7035 Email: Website:


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