Thursday, 20 March 2008

The phosphorus crisis

I received an e-mail the other day from someone in the Water and Sanitation Management unit of IFAD (the International Fund for Agricultural Development) taking me to task for the entry on Phosphorus which appears right at the bottom of my webpage on EcoSan. The entry reads as follows: «‘EcoSanologists’ make much of the impending phosphorus crisis (e.g., Closing the Loop on Phosphorus, EcoSanRes Fact Sheet #4, April 2005), but this has little to do with the periurban and rural poor in developing countries and it’s not really much of a reason why they should have EcoSan toilets − better for industrialized countries to stop using phosphorus in detergents (see, for example, Phosphates and Alternative Detergent Builders, European Commission, 2002).»

The e-mail said this was wrong for three reasons: (i) poor rural farmers don’t have access to chemical or organic fertilizers (in sub-Saharan Africa they used only 8 kg of fertilizer per ha in 2002/03, compared to 80 kg in South America, 98 kg in North America and 202 kg in East Asia); (ii) the price of DAP (diammonium phosphate) is rocketing − now USD 750 per tonne, up from USD 240 in 2007; and (iii) in Mauritania (as an example) urine is now worth about €0.25 per 20 litres. I was also given a link to “current IFAD activities on sustainable sanitation” (here) but this turned out to be a record of a seminar held at IFAD Headquarters in Rome on 29 January 2008 with participants from IFAD and the Stockholm Environment Institute on “Safe and sustainable livelihoods in agricultural communities: Optimizing the recycling of human waste” − the usual EcoSan “gospel”!

Well, as I said in the blog of 16 January, «I may not think much of EcoSan in periurban areas but it’s certainly more than OK in rural areas if that what the users want − if you’re really interested in rural EcoSan, then read the excellent Toilets that make compost: Low-cost, sanitary toilets that produce valuable compost for crops in an African context by Dr Peter Morgan.» The key words here, to me at least, are “if that’s what the users want”.

Poor rural farmers can be responsibly encouraged to have EcoSan systems, but the reason for this should be for them to use the nutrients in human wastes and the water in greywater, so that they grow more food and save money by not buying so much fertilizer − rather than as a contribution to solving the impending global P crisis (which isn’t of their making).

So I think I’m right, but I should update my EcoSan webpage make it all clearer.