Friday, January 18, 2002

Time to revive old ways of excreta as manure

By Razen Manandhar

KATHMANDU, Jan 17: Panna Ratna Maharjan, an elderly Kirtipur farmer, often worries that the vegetables he grows these days are not "as big and tasty" as they used to be two decades ago. He says that’s because he no longer uses human excreta as manure.

"In the earlier days, we used to use human excreta and kitchen waste as manure. That was a productive way of doing agriculture," he says.

Maharjan says the old practice of mixing human faeces, urine and kitchen waste in the soil to make it more fertile is now being regarded as "unhealthy" in the face of so-called modern scientific ways of agriculture.

The only farmers who are still sticking to the old ways are the Sherpas in high-altitude districts like Dolpa and Solukhumbu.

"Our grandfathers were much more scientific, they used to manage solid waste in such a way that it became an essential resource in agricultural production," says farmer Maharjan.

In those ‘grandfather times’, the human faeces in public toilets were collected by sweepers in buckets and deposited in pits dug beside the fields. Then the farmers would add other types of manure to it before pouring it into the field.

Maharjan says pouring human excreta "directly on the earth is a sin".

He says the vegetables grown in such fields have better colour, are more tasty and bigger.

Raj Bhai Jyakami, the Secretary of Jyapu Mahaguthi, a farmers’ organization, says that the practice of using human waste as manure stopped with the change in structure of houses.

Using human excreta as manure is a popular method among the farming communities in many parts of the world. While it might not have been an old practice as in the case of Nepal, it is now being introduced in countries like Zimbabwe, Vietnam and Sweden.

This method started dying out in Nepal also because toilets with water closets came into place.
Although many may think water closets are the best way to deal with excreta, environmentalists say this is a waste of a lot of water and also has a contaminating effect on rivers and ground water.

Dr Roshan Raj Shrestha, the Executive Chairman of Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO), says urine and faeces are great fertilisers, and have a good effect on the soil. The Sweden-returned scientist says this method of excreta as manure can be easily revived in the Kathmandu Valley.

"An adult produces on an average 400 litres of urine in a year, which is in fact 4 kg of nitrogen, 0.4 kg of phosphorus and 0.9 kg of potassium," informs Shrestha. "Similarly a person releases on an average 25 to 50 kg of faeces in a year, which is 0.55 kg of nitrogen, 0.18 kg of phosphorus and 0.37 kg of potassium."

He says it’s a tragedy that such fertile elements are flushed out by the larger world population.

"Instead of using them as life-givers, these wastes are now polluting water bodies," he says.

Dr. Shrestha says the human waste ought to be mixed with lime or ash in the soil to drive away bad odour. He, however, says it is important to separate urine and faeces because if they are mixed, they lose out on their fertile properties.

"The sanitised or composted faeces become humus that act as soil conditioner which increases water-holding capacity, reduces pests and diseases, improves soil structure, breaks up organic matter into the basic elements that plants need, and neutralize soil toxins and heavy metals,"
says Shrestha.

Apparently, this system of "ecological sanitation" will also help reduce use of water in flushing. Dr Shrestha says people on an average use 15,000 litres of water to flush 50 litres of faeces and 500 litres of urine.

Says Dr. Shrestha, "If human excreta is not flushed out, the problem of water scarcity can be reduced to some extent. And the use of excreta as manure will also solve the big problem of human waste management."

[Kathmandu Friday January 18, 2002 Magh 05, 2058.]