- Scientists have come up with a potentially safe microbial concoction that can revive the water-conserving traditional dry toilets in cold deserts in India to manage human waste and cater to local agroecological needs.
- Dry toilets compost human excreta to generate organic manure for local farmers in Himachal and neighbouring Ladakh. However, this practice in recent decades has taken a hit.
- Ladakh’s mission to mainstream organic farming by 2025 banks on dry toilets as one of the measures towards realising its objectives in organic farming and carbon neutrality. Organic farming can be considered as a nature-based solution as long as it can meet food security needs, experts said.
Aesthetically, they may not quite cut it, but these two-tiered sanitation structures, set against the sprawling cold deserts of the Indian Himalayas, have supplied organic manure to local communities for their agricultural needs, in this water-limited region, for generations. These structures are water-conserving dry toilets that compost human excreta to natural manure (night soil compost) by the addition of a mixture of dry materials, such as dried livestock dung, ash and wood chips. The night soil compost comes in handy for the local agricultural requirements, particularly in the dry cold desert regions such as Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul and Spiti valley and the Union Territory of Ladakh.
But social apprehensions, unhygienic conditions of dry toilets, urbanisation, modernisation, and increase in tourism have led to the popularisation of septic toilets and the decline in the use of these traditional structures since the 1980s; the easy availability of chemical fertilisers catering to cash crops has also impacted its practice, experts, government officials and local community members said.
However, scientists at CSIR-Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology (IHBT), may have an answer to ensure the continuance of dry toilets with improvements. They are tinkering around with beneficial bacteria extracted from the night soil compost to cobble together a ‘compost booster’ with carrier materials that substitutes the dry materials to speed up the degradation of the night soil to manage human waste in cold desert areas. And carrying on the traditional system is also one among the suite of efforts suggested by Ladakh’s action plan on organic development and to make the union territory carbon-neutral. The plan nudges users to continue using the traditional composting toilets, with improved aesthetics and composting.
“Since the booster is prepared using beneficial cold-tolerant bacterial consortia with plant growth-promoting characteristics, it plays a role in boosting the productivity of crops when applied to fields. The product is very user-friendly as the dry-toilet users have to use a handful of the material after defecating,” said scientist Rakshak Kumar Acharya, at the Biotechnology Division, CSIR-IHBT, Palampur, India. The booster is safe for use in terms of pathogenicity.
According to the institute’s director Sanjay Kumar: “The technology saves water, produces quality compost from the faecal material to help sustain the agroecosystem of the region providing opportunities for the generation of local start-ups.”
Acharya and colleagues have distributed the compost booster to households in Himachal for field trials since 2018 and have recently started a collaboration with the armed forces to solve the issue of sewage disposal in the soakage pits at their unit at Leh in Ladakh. They are in touch with Ladakh authorities to use the product in Chaksa or Ladakhi dry toilets.
Tashi Tsetan, chief agriculture officer, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council elaborated that a mix of solutions such as the compost booster-bolstered dry toilet system, vermicompost and bio-fertilisers will underpin the union territory’s strategy to mainstream organic farming in Ladakh by 2025 with one of its objectives to enable farmers to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
“If we can improve on the aesthetics and ensure better hygienic conditions in the dry toilets, we can build on the traditional knowledge to fortify the system for the future. Families (farmers) in Leh district, especially the rural, remote areas, still use the dry toilets in summer and winter because you really don’t have any other option given the geographical and climatic conditions. While we have the modern flush toilets in cities for tourists, we do have environmentally-conscious tourists who prefer to use the traditional system to conserve water,” Tsetan told Mongabay-India.
The total cropped area in Leh is 10,223 hectares and only 0.2 percent of the geographical area is under cultivation. Temperatures drop to minus 30 degree Celsius in the winters. “We have a very narrow window for agriculture (in the summer) when we use the snow and glacial melt for farming wheat and barley which are our staples and some vegetables. We anticipate that with future climate change impacts and with glaciers receding, we will need to strengthen our water conservation measures and traditional measures such as dry toilets, with scientific interventions, will have an important role to play in organic farming,” Tsetan added.
Maintaining a balance
Tek Bahadur Sapkota, agricultural systems and climate change scientist at International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, Mexico, points out that organic farming can be seen as a nature-based climate solution to climate change as long as there is sufficient land to grow food for the growing population.
“Organic farming, if combined with minimum soil disturbance, can sequester carbon. The non-requirement of chemicals on organic farms not only avoids chemical-induced emissions from the field (e.g. carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and nitrogen oxides) but also the emissions associated with production and transportation of such chemicals,” Sapkota told Mongabay-India.
There are trade-offs to be considered between organic farming objectives and climate action and food security goals: it is a challenge to produce sufficient food without applying sufficient soil nutrients through chemical fertilisers. “If we rely too much on animal manure for organic farming and if greenhouse gas emissions associated with livestock production are included, this may be even higher in some cases,” Sapkota adds.
Jagdev Katoch, a retired school principal in Goshal in Himachal Pradesh’s Kullu district, who has used CSIR-IHBT’s compost booster in his residential dry toilet since 2019, notes that due to the decline in the availability of night soil compost in his village, one can apply the night soil compost to only a section of their farms while the rest have to rely on livestock manure and chemical fertilisers for farming, mainly, vegetables such as potatoes and cauliflower.
“But night soil compost is more potent than livestock manure for plant growth which is why it is still preferred for farming. We use the flush-based toilets in summer but for winters we have to rely on dry toilets, particularly in the months of December, January and February. In summers, many from the old generation use dry toilets but the youth prefers modern toilets. Modern systems are also easy to clean which is one reason that puts off youngsters from visiting the dry toilets,” 66-year-old Katoch told Mongabay-India.
Currently, residents/farmers have to rely on the research institution to source the compost booster as no local entrepreneurs have come ahead to implement the technology in the Lahaul valley. “We are trying to help them with Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises clusters and also encouraging unemployed youth to take up this venture as the demand in the local area is huge,” Acharya of CSIR-IHBT, added. Besides, the regular supply of the compost booster is disrupted during extreme winters due to snowfall and difficulty in transportation.
Acharya suggests that an increase in temperature (warming) may ease the process of composting as warmer temperatures may speed up the microbial degradation process in night soil compost. “In cold regions, the low temperature poses a big hurdle in composting due to the limited load of microorganisms and lower metabolic activity. This can be resolved with the addition of the cold-adapted bacteria as it accelerates the rise in temperature at the onset of composting,” he said referring to the compost booster.
J.C. Kuniyal, head of the Centre for Environmental Assessment and Climate Change at G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, Uttarakhand, who was not associated with the compost booster research but has worked on traditional agricultural practices including night soil compost, adds that night soil compost in dry high mountain areas adds moisture to the porous soil necessary for crop growth. Because of limited vegetation due to the cold climate, it is also difficult to maintain enough livestock for adequate farmyard manure. The changing agrobiodiversity from traditional crops to cash crops in high mountain regions has also impacted agriculture practices with reliance on chemicals to stave off pests and enhance productivity.
“The introduction of high-yielding varieties of potatoes (1960s) and pea and hops (in the 1980s) has impacted the agrobiodiversity and resource use efficiency in Lahaul as per our studies. A balance has to be maintained between the use of chemical fertilisers and organic inputs for food security and environmental conservation. However, there is a resurgence in interest in local knowledge systems such as dry toilets in these areas which, when packed together with a bit of modern science and innovation, could also help revive traditional agrobiodiversity,” added Kuniyal.
Sustainable farming strategies are advocated as one of the ways to shore up climate resilience for vulnerable communities. The limited success of the Green Revolution in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region represents one of the biggest opportunities for developing successful rural communities that rely on organic farming and agroecology, states the Mainstreaming of Organic Agriculture And Agroecology in the Himalaya Region report released at the United Nations Desertification summit in 2019.
Documenting the existing political support to organic farming in India, Nepal and Bhutan, it notes that institutional interventions facilitate “better access to organic inputs, especially organic fertilisers, the creation of governmental units dedicated to organic farming and support for specific research, training and extension service programmes.”
The odds are stacking up against the Himalayas. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, snow cover has reduced since the early 21st century, and glaciers have thinned, retreated, and lost mass since the 1970s in high mountain Asia (including the Himalayas) except for Karakoram glaciers. Snow-covered areas and snow volumes will decrease during the 21st century, snowline elevations will rise and glacier mass is likely to decline with greater mass loss in higher greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, it said.
Climate change impacts in high mountains, including the Himalayas, will pose challenges for water supply, energy production, ecosystem integrity, agricultural and forestry production, disaster preparedness, and ecotourism, the IPCC said. A 2019 study emphasised that rapid urbanisation in the Himalayas, driven mainly by tourism, is threatening water security in the area which will only be worsened by climate change.
Scientists have flagged that rising temperatures and reduced winter snowfall are tied to loss of mass of glaciers in the western Himalayas based on long-term observations of the Chhota Shigri Glacier in the Lahaul-Spiti valley. Their research shows that summer-monsoonal snowfall plays an important role in maintaining glacier mass in the western Himalayas and if this snowfall is more frequent and strong in the years ahead, the health of glaciers (in the western Himalayas) will most likely sustain. Factors like wood burning and forest fires – and not the carbon emitted from the use of fossil fuel – are the primary drivers behind the carbon-induced melting of glaciers in the western Himalayan region.
Banner image: The upper section of a dry toilet is the toilet space with a hole in the floor and the lower section is the composting unit that receives the waste (night soil). After every use, human waste is covered by a dry mixture of wood chips, ash, animal dung, sand, which assists decomposition and staves off odour. Photo by Rakshak Kumar Acharya.