A Passion for Health (and Latrines) in Bihar India

Latrines. Maybe they don’t make your list of Things I Get Excited About. But for Katherine Westphal, water and sanitation technical advisor for CRS in India, latrines are all about delivering health, in this case to people driven from their homes by massive flooding.

The Q&A that follows is the first of three parts that give insight into living conditions for thousands of people forced to evacuate after floodwaters tore through Bihar, India in August.

Caroline Brennan, CRS regional information officer in India for the past three years, provided the questions.

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CRS water and sanitation engineer Katherine Westphal helps children displaced by the flood each get a stick with a red flag before going on their game to search for areas of open defecation. Photo by CRS staff

Many people aren’t quite sure what latrines are, or may just understand that it’s a hole in the ground. Can you explain what it is you’re building?

The shallow trench latrine is not like your typical pit latrine (i.e. a hole in the ground) found throughout US State Parks. Rather, it is a semi-enclosed communal structure with a long trench (about 2 feet deep and 10 inches wide) that runs the length of the latrine. For privacy, the trench is partitioned into 5 sections. With one foot on either of side of the trench, in a comfortable squatting position, human waste is disposed of safely. Once the trench is about half full it is back-filled with soil and a new adjacent trench is dug.<\p>

To reduce odors, the latrine is designed without a roof and ash is sprinkled into the trench periodically. In some cases, where the latrine is built facing an open flooded plane, the third wall is removed for increased air flow.

The design has a very open feel, almost like you are outdoors. By using locally available materials such as jute stem (reeds) and bamboo, we have created a durable and airy latrine. Sounds nice doesn’t it?!

How did you come up with this design?

The design took shape after speaking with flood-affected families about their common sanitation practices and preferences, and observing that pit latrines are seldom used. In this area of Bihar, the majority of the flood-affected people practice open defecation. Therefore it is understandable that the concept of a smelly, enclosed pit latrine would feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar.

Rather than do what is most difficult in this field (create behaviour change), I decided to work with the current practices and add in a few modifications. There were two key objectives with this latrine design; safe disposal of human waste and privacy for men and women throughout the day. Along a 25 mile stretch of a canal embankment, where tens of thousands of displaced people are seeking shelter, there is limited space for open defecation. As a result, men, women and children are defecating directly into the canal or moving to open areas under the shelter of night. Under these circumstances, women feel especially vulnerable and tend to travel in groups between 10pm and 3am to defecate.

How does an American girl get into this line of work? (What do your parents think?!)

Funny you should ask! With an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering I joined Peace Corps as a water and sanitation engineer in Panama. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into but quickly developed a passion for this line of work. It can be a little dirty (and smelly!) at times, but what greater gift can one give than clean water and a comfortable toilet?

Really, if my parent’s weren’t so supportive I could never live in these remote regions of the world. I do think that they wonder how someone who enjoys the luxuries of the United States can spend her days in defecation fields!

What are the biggest challenges in what you do?

I find that the biggest challenge in what I do is that I can never do enough. There will always be people without clean water and at times I feel very small in what I can accomplish.

I also find it really challenging being a woman in this field. In parts of the world where female engineers are uncommon of it takes a lot of energy to be heard.

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4 Responses to “A Passion for Health (and Latrines) in Bihar India”

  1. Joy Staff Says:

    Hi :)

    I’m interested in toilet systems as I have recently been in Papua New Guinea, visiting a primary school.
    They have 2 small pit systems that are very unhygienic.
    I’m currently researching to find a system that would best suit there conditions.Papua new Guinea is a tropical climate with a solid wet season.
    Would you have any suggestions?

  2. Joy Staff Says:

    Hi Katherine :)
    I am moved by your devotion to better the lives of these people.
    I have to say I feel the same way after vising villages in PNG.
    How much better their lives can be with proper sanitary.
    It’s my goal to get a system to them that will be long lasting and help them to understand the benefits of good hygiene.
    You are a true angel.

  3. John Lindner Says:

    Joy,
    Check out this page. It contains information about water and sanitation projects.
    http://crs.org/publications/list.cfm?sector=18
    If you don’t find what you need there, let us know.
    -jl

  4. Santosh Kumar Singh Says:

    Hi Katherine!

    We are working on Disaster Management in the flood afected areas of Utar Pradesh and Bihar. One of the main cause of concern in these areas is of defecation for Women and children in particular. We are looking for various low cost designs of toilet. Please do let us know of your design in detail.

    THanks!

    Santosh

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