Eco Toilets Empower Women and Protect the Environment in Columbia

Tierra Grata's mission is to provide innovative solutions to cover neglected basic needs in rural communities.


(Courtesy of Tierra Grata)

When is a toilet much more than just a toilet? In rural Columbia, access to safe sanitation facilities can make a world of difference for rural women and children. Jenifer Colpas, the CEO and co-founder of Tierra Grata – which means pleasant earth – sees the organization's mission as a way to diminish social inequality by guaranteeing access to energy, water, and sanitation (toilets) in an environmentally friendly manner.

After living in India were Colpas was shocked by the poverty there and when she returned home to Columbia, she realized that the same issues also existed in Columbia where 30 percent of the population does not have access to adequate sanitation systems. Colpas and some friends sprung into action and set up Tierra Grata in 2015.

She told Inhabitat, “I was truly outraged by the fact that people lived without the most basic things, like access to electricity, a proper toilet, and safe drinking water.”

In 2010, the UN resolved that access to water and sanitation is a basic human right and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all other human rights. "Unfortunately, a lack of adequate access, either in terms of quantity or quality of water, often impacts women and children disproportionately,” Lis Mullin Bernhardt, the UN Environment's freshwater expert, told Inhabitat.

In many places in the world, women and children have to provide the family's water and this time-consuming task keeps children out of school and women out of the workplace, plus the lack of sanitary facilities leads to more health and safety issues for women and girls.

Now, Tierra Grata has a solution: the baño grata - a simple eco-toilet facility that can be installed with minimal cost using local labor. The baño grata does not use any water so it can be used in places where there is no water infrastructure and where makeshift bathrooms often contaminate the soil and local watershed, which in turn leads to diseases.

“Instead of water, a mixture of lime, sawdust and ashes is used, placed each time a stool is made; that mixture of organic materials neutralizes all the odors, while it is converting the organic matter into fertilizer,” Colpas said.

There are seven prototypes of the project in three rural communities, according to the organization. Some of the structures also provide a separate shower and changing space that gives women and girls much-needed privacy during menstruation, pregnancy, and the post-partum phase.

Before setting up the facilities, the organization finds households and communities headed by women and girls and trains them in the maintenance of the structure, sanitation practices, and the issues of sustainability. Empowering women is a great benefit for the families and the community as a whole.

Tierra Grata does so much more than just installing toilets. The organization recognizes and addresses many interrelated issues that include gender inequality and the protection of the environment. “Water and sanitation issues sit at the intersection of environmental and social concerns,” Colpas said. “Lacking water and sanitation solutions contribute to disease, stagnation and the pollution of natural waterways.”

Tierra Grata received an award for Innovative Water and Sanitation Solutions and was awarded the Leadership in Action Award from a major media house in Colombia, EL ESPECTADOR. The organization also received a UN development program grant to implement its projects.

Colpas dreams big. She explained in a UN environmental release that: "Our dream is to be the first social enterprise for rural public services in Latin America, providing innovative solutions to cover the neglected basic needs of those rural communities. We dream of seeing millions of people with access to safe drinking water, a toilet and clean, accessible energy."

At 28, she has the drive and the youthful enthusiasm to make this dream a reality. Just imagine what 10 or 20 or 200 innovative dreamers can do to make a difference in solving these injustices worldwide.

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