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Pit Latrines: The World's Dirty Not-So-Little Secret

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The transportation of human fecal matter is a worthwhile investment opportunity today, according to World Bank officials.

Residents of Uganda's capital city, Kampala, generate 800,000 litres of feces per day -- that's 800 cubic meters -- but only a tiny fraction of this quantity is extracted and removed from the pits into which it is excreted. Mostly, the pits stay full. And, like poor people around the world whose entire toilet experience is limited to holes in the ground, the vast majority of Ugandans rely on these pits. Only 8 percent of Ugandans are connected to the nation's sewage system, according to AllAfrica.com.

World Bank senior water and sanitation specialist Samuel Dawuna Mutono announced in Kampala this week that "the bank carried out a study" measuring the quantity, also according to AllAfrica.com. I don't envy those researchers.

We who take flushing for granted have no idea how gross and potentially lethal it is to rely on pit latrines. In overcrowded slums around the world, a single three-to-six-foot hole in the ground, over which one squats, is typically shared by hundreds or even thousands of users. When full to overflowing, they're leveled off manually, bucketload by bucketload and even basketful by basketful. Transported by truck or by hand, the contents are typically dumped in the nearest drain or natural body of water. This can spread cholera, typhus, and other diseases.

We who take flushing for granted also don't realize how many folks around the world can't flush. Bangladesh's capital city, Dhaka, has a sewage system but only 35 percent of city residents are connected to it. Outside Dhaka, Bangladesh has no sewage systems at all. Nearly two billion people worldwide do not have access to adequate sanitation, according to a program produced by Television for the Environment.

One solution is the Vacutug, an adorably named four-foot-high 500-litre vacuum tank-and-pump vehicle that is powered by a small gasoline engine and that can extract fecal sludge or just plain urine at 1,700 litres a minute. Once collected, the effluent can be transported easily to treatment plants.

The Vacutug is "a service affordable by the urban poor, with the capital cost affordable by entrepreneurs who can potentially develop a micro-enterprise, recovering the operational costs from the revenue generated," according to TVE. "It is capable of accessing some of the most densely populated urban areas, with narrow and bumpy lanes, where conventional systems are unable to penetrate. It can be constructed, operated and maintained using local materials and skills.... The vacuum tank is fabricated from mild steel with a nominal volume of 500 litres. The tank is fitted with a check valve, a sight glass and two 75mm ports, for sludge inlet and vacuum pump connection. The assembly is mounted on a steel frame fitted with secondhand car wheels and hubs." Fitted with a motorcycle throttle and braking system, the Vacutug can travel at speeds of up to 5kph.

A partnership was signed in Kampala this week between the National Water and Sewerage Corporation, Uganda Investment Authority, Enterprise Uganda and the Private Emptiers Association. Mutono, the World Bank sanitation expert, hopes more people will "invest in emptying pit latrines." Those investments might go toward such devices as the Vacutug and its newest model, Vacutug Mark II.

Uganda's Private Emptiers Association currently has 35 trucks for sewage transport, according to AllAfrica.com. The police force and Uganda Peoples Defence Forces have one truck each for emptying pits.

We who take flushing for granted have no idea how lucky we are. Imagine if, in addition to their other responsibilities, our armed forces and local cops were responsible for transporting fecal matter.