Safe and sustainable livelihoods in agricultural communities: Optimizing the recycling of human waste


A seminar was held at IFAD Headquarters in Rome Tuesday 29 January 2008 with participants from IFAD and The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).

The main objective of this learning event was to share knowledge and experiences on the best ways of optimizing human waste or nutrient recycling, using productive sanitation systems. The event also highlighted the economic benefits of recycling nutrients as fertilizer in terms of improved soil condition, reclaimed water, increased agricultural productivity, employment generation, and health improvements and the reduction of environmental and public health costs.

The global sanitation crisis is such that an estimated 2.6 billion individuals still lack any form of sanitation. As part of the Millennium Development Goals, the countries of the world have pledged to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation. The results so far have been mixed, and progress has stalled in many developing regions despite the fact that improved sanitation would enhance livelihoods and general productivity for the 850 million people worldwide who are still extremely poor and chronically hungry, and the 2 billion people who still lack food security (FAO 2006).

At present 25 billion tons of nutrient-rich topsoil are being lost annually across the earth (World Watch Report 2005), leading to considerably reduced productivity, and decreased food security. The loss of the most important macronutrients in the soil has been partly compensated for by chemical fertilizers, which are widely used in conventional agriculture, but are hardly an affordable solution for IFAD's beneficiaries in rural areas around the world.

New ways of optimizing nutrient recycling have been developed over the past seven years by SEI through its EcoSanRes Programme, with the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). The following presentation summaries describe the main findings of the seminar and indicate the importance of improving cooperation between agriculture and sanitation development sectors and the benefits of working together.

Presentation (Summary):

Johan Rockström (Executive director of SEI): The role of productive sanitation in global environmental sustainability

chartThe executive director of SEI described how environmental issues have become a global concern. Over the past 50 years, 60 per cent of ecosystems under analysis have become degraded. This degradation is largely due to the impact of agriculture. The recycling of nutrients in human waste offers a real possibility of addressing these global issues.

Rockström outlined SEI's vision of a new "Green-Green Revolution" which gives special importance to small-scale agriculture in developing countries. Linking nutrient recycling and agricultural productivity and integrating innovations in nutrient recycling with innovations in water and land management are important components of this "Green-Green Revolution". In Sub-Saharan Africa, agricultural productivity could be as much as doubled by using recycled human waste as fertilizers.

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Arno Rosemarin (Research and Communications Manager): Key linkages between agriculture and sanitation.
Issues :

An estimated 800 million people living in 46 countries are malnourished and unable to feed themselves. About 3.5 billion people worldwide are infected with helminthes worm parasites as a result of poor sanitation. In general the linkages between agriculture, sanitation and nutritional status are not well developed in institutional programmes.

From 2002 to 2003, farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa used an average of 8kg of fertilizer per ha as compared to amounts used in South America (80kg), North America (98kg), Western Europe (175kg), East Asia (202kg), South Africa (61 kg) and North Africa (69kg).
The cost of fertilizer in the US prior to the large price increases in 2007 was US$150 per tonne, whereas in landlocked African countries (such as Rwanda and Niger), it rose as high as US$600 per tonne. These high costs are largely a result of the severe lack of transport infrastructure, especially rail and road networks.

Bringing together the sanitation and agriculture sectors and thereby completing the cycle of nutrients, can ensure food security for smallholder farmers. Exploring ways of reusing nutrients in human waste has become a priority, given limited phosphate reserves and the growing market for biofuels which has caused increases in the price of fertilizers and of natural gas. In the future biofuels will likely become a primary cash crop, and will be cultivated on the most fertile soils, while cereals and subsistence crops will be relegated to low-productivity soils. The competition for fertilizer will increase the costs of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The trends in global fertilizer consumption demonstrate potential geopolitical perils of greater demand and dwindling supply. Global fertilizer supply is controlled by just 8 countries, only 3 of which extract 77 per cent of the world's phosphate rock: Morocco & Western Sahara, China and the USA. Nutrient recycling is an important part of ensuring the sustainability of ecosystems and of food production systems in general.

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Cecilia Ruben: The MDG Sanitation challenges. Examples of productive sanitation projects in various regions.

Issues :
In order to meet the MDG sanitation challenge innovation must be fostered, and a change in attitude in favour of the safe reuse of human waste and the recovery of treated wastewater is required. The links between sanitation and agriculture are obvious, and need to be explored further. Productive sanitation is an approach that embraces more than toilet provision; it offers sanitation, protects human health, reduces environmental pollution, conserves water, and reuses nutrients available in processed human waste.

Cecilia Ruben presented a review of the achievements of the EcoSanRes Programme over the past seven years in collaboration with international networks. Her focus was on showing the links between sanitation, agricultural and biomass production through examples from different projects around the world. The presentation also highlighted various technical options for toilet design aimed at the cost-effective and safe collection of human excreta to extract nutrients, and generate water and soil-improving products for use in agriculture.

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Laurent Stravato: Best practices optimizing nutrient recycling. Examples of ongoing projects.

Urine is a valuable fertilizer which poor people could use to increase yields without contaminating their environment (for example, ground water). If correctly managed, it could become a resource, rather than a pollutant.

Researchers from Burkina Faso (CREPA), Sweden (SEI) and Finland (University of Kuopio) report that using treated urine in cultivation yielded vegetables (such as maize, spinach, cabbages and tomatoes) that were bigger than those treated with industrial fertilizer or those grown without any fertilizer. It is clear that urine has an economic value. In Mauritania, we have calculated that the average farmer could save US$10 per year in the cost of fertilizers by recycling urine.

IFAD is developing some initiatives in Niger and Mauritania which will be integrated into IFAD projects (PPILDA in Niger and PACDM Phase 2 in Mauritania).
The main interest for Country Programme Managers and project managers of this initiative is based on the fact that productive sanitation systems provide access to fertilizers at no added cost. Farmers with limited incomes are the first target group. Two pilot projects will be carried out over one crop season in five villages (in Niger and Mauritania).

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Madeleine Fogde, (Capacity Development Manager): EcoSanRes Programme. A global pro-poor policy and capacity development programme on sustainable sanitation.

There is limited capacity in sustainable sanitation, or the recycling of human waste around the world and social taboos have prevented an open dialogue related to safe sanitation. EcoSanRes aims to establish knowledge nodes in 10 developing regions (eg Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America) in order to train groups in sustainable sanitation and develop local capacity to respond to demand for information and training in the region. The main components of these nodes will include knowledge management and development, demonstration, training, dissemination of best practices, and communications and networking. The nodes will be linked to the worldwide platform for knowledge institutions and organizations to spread knowledge through the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance.

Different research groups are developing research on thematic areas such as toilet design and architecture, human waste collection, composting, storing and reusing wastewater, as well as the social and gender aspects of sanitation and the recycling of human waste, and research into the benefits for livelihoods, health, hygiene and the environment as they relate to sanitation.

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The discussion opened opportunities to increase collaboration between agricultural and sanitation sectors at local and national levels, especially in light of the fact that the International Year of Sanitation 2008 has now been launched, but also to respond quickly to the rapid global increase in chemical fertilizer prices.

Main questions from IFAD's staff:

  • How can we ensure the safety of products fertilized with urine?
    Different studies are demonstrating the safety of products fertilized with urine. These studies even demonstrate that insect damage is lower in plots that are fertilized with urine as opposed to chemically-fertilized plots, but more extensive than in non-fertilized plots.
    The microbiological quality of vegetables fertilized with urine has been proven to be similar to that of other chemically-fertilized vegetables.
    These results have been publicized by reports in newspapers such as The Washington Post and Science News.
  • How can we advocate market linkages and value chain opportunities for products fertilized with urine?
    This mainly depends on national policy and legislative requirements. In 2006 the World Health Organisation adapted its guidelines regarding the safety of products irrigated with wastewater. It now adopts a more flexible approach, taking into account the context of the country and access to fresh water. In the face of huge increases in the price of chemical fertilizers (for example, the price of granular urea has quadrupled in Mauritania), most governments are now interested in gaining access to free fertilizers and have declared an interest in testing approaches to the use of urine fertilizer at small scale level.
    Where target populations are involved in these trials, social marketing and awareness raising campaigns are needed to advocate for these new opportunities and to ensure safe handling of these products.
  • Why did you focus your presentations only on human sanitation issues? Why was no link drawn between livestock and nutrient recycling?
    The focus of our work is mainly related to the biggest MDG sanitation challenge (The MDG 7 Target 10) which sets the target of reducing the number of people living without access to adequate sanitation or toilets by 50 per cent. Every day the lack of basic sanitation leads to the death of 5,000 children. Livestock excreta also represent an excellent opportunity to supply free fertilizer to farmers and as a source of energy production (biogas) but we must first target human sanitation. Once our techniques for reusing human waste are well implemented, the "snow ball" effect will support any activities and links with livestock.  

Follow up:
The President of IFAD has declared his interest in investigating further opportunities for collaboration with institutions researching the role of productive sanitation in adaptation to adverse climate change effects.

A concept note will be developed linking climate change adaptation, productive sanitation systems and water management at the small-scale farmer level.

Current IFAD pilot initiatives related to productive sanitation systems will continue to be scaled up based on potential results. Several Country Programme Managers at IFAD have already shown an interest in testing those approaches in current projects (in Rwanda, Burundi, China, India and Swaziland and South Africa for example). 

IFAD will also support different activities on productive sanitation systems during the International Year of Sanitation with partners such as the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance, SEI, UN agencies ( UNICEF) and private foundation.


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