When our Group 77 first arrived in Panama, we underwent ten weeks of capacity building. This involved daily trainings of the national language, cultural customs and technical skills we would need to utilize during our two year Peace Corps service. As an Environmental Health Volunteer, technical themes chiefly surrounded water, sanitation and hygiene. One sanitation skill learned was constructing rural pit latrines. In the campo, it can be quite difficult implementing the common flush toilets we grew up with, so alternatives include composting and pit latrines. Currently, most community members utilize the rivers or fields to openly defecate (OD). This can cause a multitude of environmental and personal health problems. Therefore, as a WASH volunteer, it has been one of my jobs to develop capacity building lessons and educate community members on the effects of ODing. In addition to education, the implementation of improved sanitation infrastructure was promoted.
Volunteers from my Group were able to first able to practice making a latrine plancha during Tech Week. I constructed another for my Peace Corps house about three months into living in Renacimiento. Each time, I had a lot of fun measuring out the dimensions and rebar, pouring the concrete mixture, and watering it daily. It is important to measure the plancha big enough to cover and extend beyond the hole in the ground (so it doesn’t fall in). The hole should be dug approximately 7 feet (be careful of not digging too deep and contaminating the water table). Once you have your measurements, create a square frame with wooden planks. Lay these down on an even surface and cover them and the base with plastic bags. This will make the removal of the plancha easier.
Place an oiled cubo in the middle, which will later be taken out and serve as the poo hole. Create a patchwork of rebar on all sides of the cubo, adhering them together with fine wire. In order to make the transport of the plancha easier, tie on bent rebar handle bars. Create the concrete mix (1 cement: 2 sand: water), and pour it into the frame. Start in one corner and firmly press it into all the nooks and crannies. It should reach a height of about 2-3″. You don’t want to make it too thick or it will be extremely heavy to move. Cover with a tarp and continually spray with water for about a week. Once the cement has hardened thoroughly, invite a team of helpers to assist you in transporting your new plancha over your dug hole.
You can adhere a ferrocement seat, wooden seat, or just squat down. Be sure to cover the hole after each use! Create a casita with wood, bamboo, tarp, or cloth and a ceiling of penca, tarp, or zinc. You just want to ensure that no rainwater enters and fills the hole. A great way of preventing runoff from entering is digging a mote around the perimeter of the plancha. In Bocas del Toro pit latrines are a challenge due to the high water table and rainfall. My latrine, and many others in Renacimiento, have filled up after heavy rains; this can cause a handful of new illnesses. In the end, I decided to fill in my hole over time with dirt, fallen banana trunks, and wood shavings. The latrine plancha was broken into pieces and used like rocks in various other projects.
For most of my service I opted to use the arbor loo method with a poobo in my house. Those can both be found on previous blog posts. I have learned so much about the struggles rural communities face with WASH while living in Renacimiento for two years. You can’t just come in and say “Stop pooping in the river! It is bad for the environment!” or “Don’t burn your trash! It causes air pollution and lung illnesses!” When alternatives and solutions are not set in place, these become extremely difficult to achieve. You want to stop pooping in the river and build a latrine, but then that fills up with water! You don’t want to burn your trash, but there is no governmental system set up that helps remove the waste! During my time here, I therefore strived to influence the community to make small changes instead of leaps. Try out recycling, or arbor loos, handwashing or soap-making. The smaller behavioral differences will ultimately make the larger changes. There is still so much to improve upon with WASH, not just in Renacimiento but all around the world. I think we can all start at the personal level by reflecting on the choices we make on a daily basis and acknowledging the consequences they may have on the world at large. Educate and inspire others when possible, and overall go forth each day with a culturally relativistic and positive attitude!