SOTANG, Nepal – A two-day’s walk from the nearest road, over the hills and valleys below Mount Everest, farmer Budhiman Tamang loads a basket of cabbages to take to the weekly market. His cabbages are double the average local size, and since cabbages are sold by the kilo, they double his profit, too.
Two years ago, Tamang couldn’t even grow enough cabbages to sell. But since then, he’s learned the magic of human urine.
“This is not a cabbage! This is Budhiman!” he declares, lifting a heroically-sized round to the skies.
The Dzi Foundation, a Colorado-based non-profit, along with a local non-governmental organization, started a project last year to build over 1,000 toilets for the nearly 6,500 residents of Sotang, a village in Nepal’s northeastern district of Solukhumbu. Each family was offered the choice between a regular squatting pan and a dual-hole pan that collects urine in a separate basin, called an ‘ecological sanitation,’ or ecosan, toilet. Not given to shying away from new things, Tamang was one of the daring few to opt for the latter: collecting urine to use as fertilizer.
In less than a month, his family of five had filled the 60-liter urine-collection tank. Tamang then had to suppress any urges of disgust to experiment with the golden nutrients on his 500-square-meter vegetable patch.
That year, he made the equivalent of $252 U.S. dollars (NPR 22,000) selling cabbages and cauliflowers, significantly increasing his income. He invested half the amount in shares for a micro-hydro plant that would bring electricity to his locale, and used the rest to buy seed and deposit in a bank for his children’s education.
Benefits and Risks
Urine contains mostly water, mixed in with nutrients that plants can quickly and easily absorb. It is often compared to the nitrogen-rich fertilizer urea, except in liquid form and cost-free.
Separating urine at the source saves resources that would otherwise be disposed of as waste through expensive sewage treatment systems.
By replacing mineral fertilizer with urine, farmers also can slightly offset their carbon footprint, and reduce the need for phosphorous found in reserves that are being depleted. In countries like Nepal, where the supply of mineral fertilizer is limited, urine offers an accessible alternative.
There is nothing new about the use of urine in this region. Among others, farmers of the ethnic Newar community in Kathmandu valley would traditionally pee under their staircases and sprinkle ash on top to later mix into their vegetable garden soils. But as Kathmandu developed, a gradual repugnance rose against such intimate handling of human waste, and new flush toilets secured the sensation.
Efforts in the last decade to re-link urine with agriculture have been backed by sounder science, and particular attention to hygiene.
In 2006, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published four volumes of guidelines on the safe use of wastewater, to which Caroline Schönning, a microbiologist at the Swedish Institute for Communicable Disease Control, contributed.
Urine poses negligible health risks, except in the case of accidental contamination from fecal pathogens, Schönning said. To prevent these pathogens from entering food, WHO proposes a series of behavioral barriers – from separation of urine at the source to applying urine only on soils and not on leaves, prioritizing crops that will be cooked and sanitary handling in the kitchen.
Traces of medicines and hormones that leak into the environment through urine is a concern, says Schönning, but “we don’t see it as a big problem.” By applying pee on soil, as opposed to circulating it through wastewater treatment systems, we pose “less risk to the environment because there is more degradation in the soil and no exposure to fish and other animals.”