Piloting ECOSAN in a rural school - School sanitation story from Colombia

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Children drawing during a hygiene-education exercise.

Country: Colombia

Students and their families both contribute to and benefit from improved sanitation facilities

Basic data:

Two rural schools in Apulo municipality, Cundimarca, Colombia were equipped with UDDTs, which solved there the lack of the toilet facilities. The project was funded and carried out by Health and Environment Institute of El Bosque University in Bogotá. The Institute has worked on projects of applied research and social progress in such schools on themes related to health and the environment, which includes the promotion and implementation of alternative sanitation systems, for the last seven years and has received technical assistance from Stockholm Environment Institute.

The project and the experiences:

“One of the benefits that the new facilities bring to our school is that it does not need water for flushing and that we can take advantage of it for irrigation of plants, eating, drinking, hand washing.” – Alex

Alex is a student of a rural school in La Horqueta in Colombia. His school lacked toilet facilities and connection to water supply systems just like 60% of all public schools in rural Colombia. His teacher Leydi Alejandra explains, “the school depends on rainwater harvesting and storage. That’s why it is very important for us to save water which we want to use for hand washing or bathing rather than for flushing the toilet”. In the past, the only available sanitation facility were pit latrines that were in poor condition or full which sometimes forced the children to open defecation until urine-diverting dry toilets (UDDTs) were installed at the school.

Alex explains how the toilets work: “We separate the pee and the poo. When I go to the toilet to pee, I pour a small amount of water for ‘flushing’, and also when I poo, I pour two scoops of sawdust into the toilet.” Because the toilets don’t require much water, the rainwater collected at the La Horqueta school is now sufficient to supply water for drinking and cooking (after filtration), hand washing, cleaning the toilet, and watering the school garden. The collected urine is stored and re-used in the school garden. Faecal matter is composted and stored for several months and afterwards used to cultivate ornamental plants around the school.

Teachers and community members are introduced to the new sanitation facility.

The operation and maintenance work is shared among the pupils and their families. The project researchers Natalia Rodriguez, Carlos Gutierrez and Juan Felipe Jaramillo explain the important role that the students play: “The pupils have learnt not only about the new technology which we hope they will transfer into their home villages. They have also learnt what it means to maintain the facilities in a participatory way. Boys and girls are now both looking after their facilities and are responsible for a clean environment.”

Moreover, the needed materials applied to cover the faeces (ash and sawdust) are provided by some students’ families. “We cook with wood and a lot of ash is thereby produced which we don’t have any use of but which helps the school to operate the toilets, so we supply it to them,” one student’s mother reports. The provision of hygiene supplies is also managed cooperatively in this small school. “We have only 15 students here. So, the school is very small and it is easy for us to coordinate the demand. Now periodically children’s families supply the soap and toilet paper,” the teacher of the school says.

At the same time, families also benefit from the availability of the toilet facilities. Through their children, families throughout the town are well aware of the facilities. “Because we are regularly measuring how much urine and faeces are collected we found out that the toilet facilities are also used during school holidays by villagers and families on their own initiatives and are guided by posters,” adds Natalia.

Carlos says: “Including the children in the planning process is very important for the acceptance and successful implementation. By interviewing students from a similar project in this region, we found out that the benches were not appropriate for children. The standard size of the toilet seat was too large and the division wall for urine bowl was too high with sharp edges. Both generated inconveniences for the children.” A new wooden bench was constructed and the seat was replaced with an appropriate one.

The key lessons of the story:

Stored urine is applied to flowers to demonstrate the usefulness as fertiliser

The project leader María Inés Matiz concludes that the following factors contributed to the success of these projects in the region:

  • Strong relationship between the school management and parents
  • Including parents in the provision of supplies such as ash; works especially well at small schools
  • User assessment and feedback from the students
  • Combination of workshops and follow up to make sure users develop ownership of the system

Kim Andersson from SEI, who provided technical support for this project, adds:

“This initiative highlights the role of schools as demonstration centres in rural areas. The project showed the benefits of an alternative sanitation system, and this together with the interest of the community and various organisations have led to replication in rural households in the area. A key, long term impact of the project is the generation of acceptance and ownership of a new sanitation technology for rural communities.”

Contribution to the SuSanA sustainability criteria

Protect the Environment and Natural Resources: UDDTs contain waste, conserve rainwater, and provide fertilizer for plants at the school.

Technically Appropriate, Including O&M: Students and their families work together to take care of their sanitation system.

Socially Acceptable and Institutionally Appropriate: Feedback from other projects in the region was crucial for designing these systems.

Project details

Project period:

Project location: two schools in Apulo municipality, Cundimarca, Colombia

Executing institution and funder: Health and Environment Institute of El Bosque University in Bogotá

Project partners: SEI, WECF

SEI (Stockholm Environment Institute) is an independent international research institute. It has been engaged in environment and development issues at local, national, regional and global policy levels for more than 25 years. They support decision-making and induce change towards sustainable development around the world by providing integrative knowledge that bridges science and policy in the field of environment and development.

WECF (Women in Europe for a Common Future) is a non-governmental organization established in 1994 following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, to give women a stronger voice in the field of sustainable development and environment. WECF strives for balancing the environment, health and economy, taking the different needs and perspectives of women and men into account and implements solutions locally and influences policy internationally.


Universidad el bosque.jpg

Maria Ines Matiz

Health and Environment Institute, El Bosque University



Kim Anderson

Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)