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The Problem

The Current Situation


The State of Lake Atitlán


Lake Atitlán is becoming increasingly polluted. Excess nutrients from agricultural runoff and untreated sewage from flush toilets have resulted in several blooms of cyanobacteria, a type of algae that is unsightly, and that has the potential to produce a variety of toxins that are dangerous to humans and animals. These toxins are extremely difficult to remove from drinking water. In addition, untreated sewage exposes local indigenous residents, as well as tourists, to pathogens and parasites. The current trend of population growth and an increasing number of flush toilets continues to increase the lake’s level of pollution and the associated health problems.


Studies of indigenous villages around Lake Atitlán have found that, at any given time, 31% of people suffer from cryptosporidium infections (Laubach 2004) and 19-22% suffer from diarrhea, dysentery, or intestinal parasites (Nagata et al 2011).


The following is an excerpt from a community health assessment conducted by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 2005. They studied the lakeside indigenous community of Santiago Atitlán:


“Diseases of the gastrointestinal tract account for the greatest burden of illness in Santiago Atitlán as measured by perceived frequency in the community and reports of recent household illness. Household risk factors relating to contamination of drinking water and food supplies are consistent with widespread fecal-oral transmission of disease. The survey suggests that about half of the respondents drink unpurified tap water pumped directly from the lake.”


Currently, none of the municipal wastewater treatment plants around the lake comply with legislated limits for the maximum permitted level of E. coli. The treatment plants exceed the maximum permitted level by up to 8,000% (DICA-AMSCLAE, 2015).


Due to a scarcity of governmental funding, and to dysfunction of past governmental agencies, people have little hope for a properly functioning wastewater treatment infrastructure.

The Role of Flush Toilets


Over time, municipalities have installed pipes delivering fresh water (not safe for drinking) to many houses. In addition, sewage pipes were installed to lead wastewater away to treatment plants. With this new modern plumbing, residents felt that they could abandon their old ways and install modern flush toilets like the ones in the houses, hotels, and restaurants where some of them worked. Few people understood that the new wastewater treatment plants were not designed to handle black water from flush toilets. Also, due to a variety of factors, human as well as natural, most of the plants have eventually failed or drastically decreased in efficiency. This has led to increasing amounts of untreated or under-treated black water entering the lake.

The following is an excerpt from an article published in Time Magazine in 2008 (bold emphasis added here):

Though the common flush toilet has remained largely the same since it's invention in 1596, the world it inhabits has changed drastically. City populations have mushroomed, sewers have become overburdened and water has become scarcer. Now, the flushing loo — that human innovation that lifted the industrialized world out of its own dirt, cholera and dysentery — is quickly becoming one of the more egregious instruments of waste in this time of acutely finite resources. "The world can't sustain this toilet," says Jack Sim, the founder of the World Toilet Organization — the other WTO — an organization that advocates for sustainable sanitation solutions for all. "This 'flush and forget' attitude creates a new problem which we have to revisit."

If you are, as Sim's [sic] said, one of the millions who tends [sic] to 'flush and forget' on a regular basis, chances are you're dumping up to 22 liters of drinkable water every day, one three- to six-liter flush at a time. But the problem doesn't stop there. What follows — the 'forget' part of the toilet experience — is the long and costly process of sanitizing the water that was clean before you answered nature's call. In the developed world, the flush toilet is our only direct link to the enormous — and exorbitant — engineering feat that is the modern urban sanitation system: the sewers, filtration plants, water treatment facilities, and finally, treated water disposal channels that send the scrubbed water into our rivers and lakes.

Using so much water per flush unnecessarily increases the volume of our waste and the cost of its transportation and treatment, ecologists say. If you don't put waste in water in the first place, then you don't have to spend money to remove it at the back end. The process also leaves a huge carbon footprint, says Rose George, author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters. In the UK, she says, "the sewage system uses as much energy as what the largest coal fire station in the [country] produces" — about 28.8 million tones of carbon dioxide a year.

But the fundamental shift in how we think about our waste, and by extension, dispose of it, needs to be to stop mixing liquids and solids, says the WTO's Sim. "The human body is designed to separate solids from liquid waste," and we should follow suit, he says. By separating fecal matter from urine at the source in what's called a "urine diversion toilet," a wider ecological system of waste disposal becomes possible. Solids can be composted for fertilizer and harvested for methane gas. Urine can be used to produce phosphorous and nitrogen and clean, drinkable water. (The question is, will people bring themselves to drink it?)

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