Afghanistan – Restoring the sanitation system



Traditional dry vault toilets have been the main sanitation system in Afghanistan for decades. For many years, this long-established system worked: dry vault latrines were used by the majority of Afghan households, collecting their faeces and urine separately, and they were emptied by farmers, who took the nightsoil by donkey carts out of the city for use as a fertilizer.


However, because of the effects of years of war, the traditional system collapsed. The rapid increase of the population, together with the city expansion and the shrinking demand for organic fertilizer, hindered the collection and transport of nightsoil. As a result, many latrines were no longer frequently emptied, allowing the outflow of excreta into the streets and causing serious health hazards. Indeed, it is estimated that over 90% of Afghanistan's population lacks access to improved sanitation facilities. This has placed the country at the top of “the worst places in the world for sanitation” list and has killed thousands of lives.


In the past years, the international aid community, together with the Afghan government, have made numerous attempts to  re-establish the traditional system and solve the sanitation issues. Up next, we are going to review the efforts of many agencies to restore the dry vault and nightsoil collection system, and discuss the future approach to be followed.


A. What have organisations done to restore the sanitation system?


Different non-governmental organisations have attempted to restore this traditional sanitation system and adapt it to suit the new Afghan environment. Most of their efforts focused mainly on latrine improvement, but there were few aimed at rehabilitating the nightsoil collection system.


A.1. Latrine improvement


Since latrines were not maintained and emptied for years, they became heavily damaged and failed at keeping the excreta separated from the people. That is why the main effort of many agencies was to improve the damaged latrines in order to reduce the health risks caused by the existing damaged latrines. The improvement included: i) increasing the capacity of the chamber to hold more waste, ii) installing a ventilation pipe to remove odours, iii) covering the chamber with a concrete slab to confine the nightsoil and iv) sealing the emptying door to avoid nightsoil outflow.


In he past decade, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ran a broad sanitation programme that included household latrine construction/rehabilitation. A total of 48,000 improved toilets were built in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Action Against Hunger (ACF) also run a comprehensive sanitation project, reforming more than 2,500 latrines in Kabul.


A.2. Nightsoil collection system rehabilitation


As the demand for organic fertilizer decreased and the traditional transport of nightsoil by donkey carts became difficult and costly, the number of nightsoil collectors diminished and the system broke down. Some organisations have focused their efforts on rehabilitating the system, which included: i) encouraging farmers to collect nightsoil again, ii) training them in using safe compost and iii) building composting centres to treat nightsoil.


In the last years, ICRC tried to build large containment tanks, where local people could dispose their excreta and from where farmers could collect it. ACF tried to organise the latrine-emptying and nightsoil transport to farmers. However, both of these projects could not operate in the long-term due to the poor coordination with local institutions and communities and their limited capacities.



B. What should organisations focus on in the future?


Although improving the existing latrines is important to avoid health risks, future efforts should centre on improving the overall nightsoil collection system, since it is is essential for the traditional system to operate.


Traditionally, the system relied on a mutual service between households, collectors and farmers: households had their latrines emptied for free, collectors received some income for collecting and transporting the nightsoil and farmers obtained fertilizer at a low cost. Therefore, the first step in improving the system is organising the nightsoil system. As collecting and transporting nightsoil by individuals with donkey carts is no longer appropriate in most parts of Afghanistan, different alternative approaches need to be developed. For instance, “collection committees” and storage containers could be established in the different neighbourhoods, so that collector would collect and move the nightsoil to the nearby container, while farmers would use small tractors to transport it from the container to their farms.


The other step is enhancing the market for organic fertilizer. In the last years, this market has shrunk for two main reasons: farmers selling their land due to the city expansion and them using chemical fertilizer because of its lower cost. Consequently, future projects should include subsidies for farmers to avoid further farmland loss and offer additional economic incentives to those using nightsoil as a fertilizer.


Finally, it is important to involve all the relevant stakeholders (government departments, NGOs, community representatives…) in the sanitation projects. For instance, future development programmes must be formulated and planned in a collaborative manner by all Afghan ministries involved: Ministry of Urban Development (MUDA), Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD), Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW), Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) and Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL). Besides, projects must be implemented including both the private sector and the community councils and assemblies.  Developing strong, close relations between all these various stakeholders will be key to ensuring that projects achieve a long term sustainability.




The traditional dry vault and night-soil collection system is still considered to be the best alternative in many parts of Afghanistan. Flush toilets or septic tanks would require a massive cost, in addition to a solid administration to operate and maintain the system. Therefore, the traditional sanitation system should not be abandoned. Future approaches for its restoration should go beyond simply building and improving more latrines and focus on enhancing the nightsoil system. If efforts are made to ameliorate the nightsoil management (including collection, transport and re-use), the traditional system could be the rightest way to solve the severe sanitation issues Afghanistan is now facing.



By Fatine Ezbakhe
Civil Engineer specialized in Water

Published on 2016-07-11 17:02:14

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