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The poorest neighborhoods in Lima are on the fringes of the city, two or three hours away from the center by over-crowded bus. There, at the city's edge, paved roads and boulevards give way to dirt tracks. Pigsties made out of plywood and cardboard compete for space with houses and schools. Many families still lack access to plumbing, running water, electricity, and garbage pick-up, even after living in Lima for ten years or more. Where the slums end, the desert begins. The only hint of green comes from moss, which clings to the rocky hills, harvesting water from the thick grey mist. Lima receives only 9 mm of precipitation a year, but from June to September the sky is perpetually covered in fog.
Blanca Villanueva is a sanitation engineer with a company called Rotaria Peru. She is an expert in something most people don't like to think about: shit, and how to deal with it. Shit, it turns out, is a problem when you've got hundreds of families living on a sand dune without access to plumbing or running water.
With support and financing from local community organizations, Rotaria Peru helps families build composting toilets in their own homes. It’s a bit complicated, but the basic idea is this: a composting toilet separates liquid and solid waste, allowing the solid waste to dry out and decompose without any odors or contamination. Composting toilets are also known as “dry” toilets because they don’t require any water.
Composting toilets thus represent an individual-level response to a municipal problem. Instead of waiting for the city government to install a sanitation system, families can take matters into their own hands by installing a composting toilet. Unfortunately, each toilet costs about $300 to construct, making them prohibitively expensive for many families. In addition, families must be taught to build them, to use them, and to maintain them. As a result, Rotaria Peru and its local partners have been forced to keep the project small, with less than a hundred toilets constructed so far.
But each toilet makes a profound difference. On Friday, I went with Blanca and her colleague Luis, who works for a local Jesuit organization, to a neighborhood called San Juan de Miraflores. We visited a total of five families, all in the final stages of constructing composting toilets. Most had previously relied on pit latrines, often shielded from the elements by pieces of plywood or cloth. The new toilets were much more substantial, and could be kept clean much more easily. Most families were also adding a shower and a sink, not to mention sturdy walls. One single mother had worked alone to decorate her family’s new bathroom with white and yellow tiles.
Standing there in the fog, looking at the rows of houses climbing up the hillside, it was hard not to be impressed by the enthusiasm of the families and the dedication of Rotaria Peru and its partners.
Still, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with climate change adaptation. The answer is simple: dry toilets are an important step, because in Lima, water is a scarce resource, and getting scarcer. Today, Lima relies on one major river—the Rimac—and two smaller rivers for water. It also draws from scattered wells. It’s not enough; the city’s water authority struggles to balance supply and demand.
What’s more, Lima’s current water supply depends in part on glacial melt-water—a temporary boon that will disappear within a few decades. In 2010, the director of Lima´s National Hydraulic Laboratory estimated that water supplies in Lima would shrink by 25% over the next ten years. Municipal and national authorities will have to find new sources of water and new ways to store it during the dry season. More importantly, they’ll have to find new ways to manage demand in a city still growing at a breakneck pace. And they’ll have to do so while bringing underserviced neighborhoods like San Juan de Miraflores into the system.
It’s not an easy task. I’m not sure if composting toilets are necessarily the solution, but they represent the kind of innovative thinking that Lima will need.