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I am an Oxfam Public Health Engineer working in Sittwe, which is in Rakhine State, Myanmar. In Sittwe there are over 100,000 people who have been displaced by violence and are now living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. We have been working in some of these camps to provide communities with clean water and sanitation facilities. One of the biggest challenges is sanitation and the management of faecal waste. In one camp there are over 10,000 people and more than 500 toilets. These toilets are pit latrines, which are shallow due to the high groundwater. Therefore they need to be emptied regularly, at intervals ranging from every two weeks to every two months. The frequency depends on the groundwater level which varies due to rainfall. As you can imagine this is a difficult, messy and costly job. Oxfam and other WASH agencies have been looking for solutions to this ongoing issue for some time now.

Bagus demonstrating toilet use on a partially-constructed communal TWT in Say Tha Mar Gyi camp, with a raised tank at the back of the toilet block to overcome high groundwater. Credit: Mee Mee Htun/Oxfam

When I first heard about the TWT I was excited as I could see it was a potential solution to the sanitation problem in these camps. Household TWTs have been shown to require less frequent emptying,-only every 3-5 years. They have been tried in different countries and contexts, but never comprehensively in humanitarian camps.

The innovative aspect of this project is making the design more appropriate to camp settings, which has involved creating a new communal design – this really appealed to me. There has also been the added challenge of working in an area with high groundwater. To overcome this, the design is half above and half below ground. We have already experienced difficulty in sourcing large quantities of worms for this project, so I can really see the value of assessing how the addition of worms one month after use will affect the function of the system.

I was really excited about trialling this new concept in Sittwe camps. As an engineer I understood the design and technology, but what I have now realised is that it’s not all about engineering – for this project to be successful we needed to not just focus on the design and construction, but also to make sure that people accepted the idea.

The India Blue (Perionyx excavatus) variety of composting worm. One kg of worms is added to a toilet for up to five users. Credit: Bagus Setyawan/Oxfam

When we had our first workshop about tiger worms with staff we realised there was a lot of scepticism about this idea. Staff were not sure about the worms or convinced that the toilets would work. Many thought it was a joke. We therefore decided that our first TWT should be built at the office. After a couple of weeks of use, the staff realised that the new toilet did not smell and there were no flies. We noticed how this helped changed staff attitudes – there were no longer the same concerns with the project.

Our next challenge was to convince the community in the camp. Like our staff, many of the community were sceptical when we first talked about these new toilets. They were worried about worms, some were scared they would escape and did not believe it would lead to less poo and less smell. Although we tried to focus our discussions on the benefits of the concept, we found it hard to get community acceptance. Luckily for us we had one willing volunteer who agreed to be the guinea pig! One of our Community Health Volunteers agreed that we could build the first communal TWT for his barrack (four families). It took him a few days of conversations, but eventually he convinced his family and friends to trust the technology and give it a go.

A new communal TWT in the centre, blending in with other standard pit latrine toilets in Say Tha Mar Gyi camp. Credit: Bagus Setyawan/Oxfam

Once the toilet was built and people started using it the feedback was really positive – people did notice there was less smell and do not even notice that there are worms inside the pit. They are happy with the outcome and have spread the word in the camp. We now have people specifically asking us to build them a TWT for their barracks.

To date we have built 12 toilets using the worms in the camp and have plans to build another 16. These 28 toilets will be compared with control toilets that we have also built in the camp – we will be comparing the amount of waste collected, the smell, the flies and the frequency of emptying the pits to assess whether this new technology is something we can scale up.

What I have learned is that people need to see it to believe it, although they don’t want to see the worms!

Bagus Setyawan – Water & Sanitation Engineer

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