On the Tonle Sap Lake, floating villages are benefitting from a series of environmentally-friendly toilets that hiver on the water and use native floating plants to break down human waste. Writer Julie Masis visits the pioneering project.

Having a toilet at home is something most people take for granted. But in floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake, going to the bathroom for most people means taking a boat somewhere in search of a secluded spot in the flooded forests. If they come across a neighbour, they have to keep going until they find another place to relieve their bowels.

“Sometimes it almost came out until I found a place,” laughs Preep Rin, a 56-year-old fisherman from O Akol floating village, as he sits on the floor of his daughter’s home. There are no chairs, tables or beds here and one lone, dim light bulb attracts insects in the night.

The villagers here don’t understand the connection between contact with excrement and disease. When darkness falls, people urinate and defecate straight into the shallow water around their homes, the same water that is used to wash dishes and clothes. When the water level dips during dry season, turds floating where children play is a common sight.

“I didn’t know that the kids could get infected from floating poop,” says Ros Sophy, 38, a mother of five.

However, the situation has started to change, thanks to social enterprise Wetlands Work! led by American scientist, Taber Hand,  which has introduced innovative toilets onto the lake.

At first glance, these are simple loos. A blue tarp is wrapped around a latrine pan, the kind that people squat over, and if villagers have an extra $15, they can install a metal roof for shelter.

The floating toilet, named HandyPod, in fact took years to develop. The faeces don’t drop directly into the lake, but pass first into a tank where anaerobic bacteria break it down, and then into another container where the roots of water hyacinth, a floating plant, further disintegrate the waste.

“When you use it, it looks like a toilet – and from the outside, it looks like a garden,” says John Allen, American program manager at Wetlands Work!

The HandyPod itself has gone through several evolutions. Before the latrine pan, it was just a bucket with the bottom cut out. This didn’t work because it smelled, and during storms the contents of the bucket could spill.

Sophy, who agreed to test the first version of the toilet in her home, remembers every time the village got hit by waves and wind, all she thought about was her outhouse. “I was so worried when the storm came that it would break my toilet,” she says.

At the O Akol village, the HandyPod is now installed in 26 of the 33 homes, and two schoolhouses, serving 41 students. And, after a $100,000 cash injection from Grand Challenges Canada, Wetlands Work! is introducing the floating toilet to 10 more floating villages on the lake, which they say will benefit approximately 10,000 people.

Wetlands Works! says toilets are essential in the prevention of childhood diarrhea and child mortality, and diseases, such as liver fluke. They take water samples every two weeks at the O Akol village and have demonstrated that the quantity of e-coli has decreased thanks to the toilets.

After building the O Akol toilets as a pilot project, Wetlands Work! is trying to convince residents of other villages to build and sell the toilets themselves. “We can take a grant and give it away for free, but eventually the money is going to run out,” Allen explains. “We want to see if the market-based approach works. If it does, then there is no limit to the number of people who can use it.”

Hand, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the Tonle Sap Lake, says the floating toilet will become more important in the future because floating communities are expanding around the world, as the poorest people are pushed into the areas where they don’t need to purchase land.

“Cities are situated on rivers, and that’s where displaced migrants are going to be going,” he says. “It will be an extreme issue in the next ten to 15 years that no one is prepared for.”

If the Cambodian experiment is successful, he hopes to spread the toilets to floating communities in Myanmar, as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Nigeria.

But so far, Puthea admits, the biggest challenge has been convincing the villagers to spend money on something that, until now, didn’t cost them anything.

“It’s really hard to persuade people (to pay for a toilet) because it’s free to defecate into the water,” he says with a hopeful smile.