Tampere University of Technology

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Ecological Sanitation - A Logical Choice? The Development of the Sanitation Institution in a World Society

Research output: Book/ReportDoctoral thesisMonograph


Original languageEnglish
PublisherTampere University of Technology
Number of pages236
ISBN (Electronic)978-952-15-3472-0
ISBN (Print)978-952-15-3467-6
Publication statusPublished - 7 Mar 2015
Publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)

Publication series

NameTampere University of Technology. Publication
PublisherTampere University of Technology
ISSN (Print)1459-2045


Sustainability, encompassing ecological, economic as well as sociocultural aspects, has become a driving force for many political and administrational decisions. It is no longer enough to follow old practices or rely on profit margins – it is necessary to consider the needs of society and nature in a more holistic way as a larger whole. Sustainability is the key word also in terms of sanitation; ecological sanitation, or ecosan for short, has come to mark the sustainable approach to handling human excreta.

In 2014, there are still approximately 2.5 billion people in the world without access to adequate sanitation; 1.1 billion practice open defecation. Lack of sanitation is often – but not necessarily – linked to lack of clean drinking water and poor hygiene. However, poor wastewater treatment also occurs in more developed countries as well as in times of crisis. In the case of natural disasters, even waterborne sanitation, which is often considered the norm, does not prevent the risk of contamination from pathogens. Ecological sanitation aims at a closed cycle of nutrients and absence of water; dry toilets, composting and urine diversion help to return nutrients back into the soil.

Based on these challenges, it is necessary to examine alternatives to the current toilet institution that considers waterborne sanitation as the norm. This dissertation explores the feasibility of ecological sanitation as a potential alternative to the mainstream option and the aim is to discover which issues affect the development and change of the current waterborne toilet institution. From a multi- and interdisciplinary point of view, the dissertation determines the various aspects affected by ecosan, such as water and environment, health, culture, education, agriculture, business and technology, and from these points of view develops futures scenarios for sustainable sanitation practices. Technology is here defined beyond artefacts and processes encompassing also knowhow as well as the sociotechnical systems of use, including legislation, culture and practices.

The data collected for this research includes expert interviews (n=11), case studies from Ethiopia, Finland, New Zealand and Zambia, and literature review including various policy documents and legislation of the aforementioned case countries to shed light to the current state of ecological sanitation and how it is taken into account from a legal perspective. In addition, a two-round consensus-Delphi survey (n1=44, n2=22) together with theme seminars was conducted among Finnish experts to determine the future potential of ecological sanitation.

Through qualitative data analyses, the potential futures and desirable outcomes are mapped with the help of futures research and environmental scanning. The overall challenge of potentially changing the waterborne toilet institution is discussed in the light of the World Polity Theory – with the understanding that global norms are valid everywhere and that change eventually must start from intergovernmental actors rather than political decision makers.

This research brings more insight to the relatively unknown and overlooked subject of ecological sanitation. The integrated approach offers new insight into sustainable sanitation practices and closed loop approach from view points of the various sectors of society, including social, economic and ecological aspects. The undisputed challenges of inadequate sanitation facilities faced by 2.5 billion people worldwide are generally not recognized in scientific literature, although several invaluable studies have contributed to the field. Still, concrete results for improvement are still required.

The results of this study find that ecological sanitation must be approached from a multidisciplinary point of view in order to understand the variety of sectors impacted by these sustainable practices. As a conclusion it can be stated that the traditional norms in waterborne sanitation are difficult to change but the pressure of limited phosphorus resources and deteriorating or non-existing infrastructure require alternative solutions to the norm. As yet, legislation has generally not allowed or considered the use of human excreta as fertiliser, but practices are slowly changing along with attitudes. Institutions do not change easily but can do so while attitudes, policies and practices all start adopting new ways of operating.

It is possible that in the future ecological sanitation will indeed be accepted as a feasible option along with other sanitation methods. This is supported also by the increasing need for sustainable practices in societies. However, in more daunting futures the lack of closed cycles will lead to shortages in resources as well as the lack of wellbeing in communities without access to sanitation. Thus, the research of sustainable sanitation solution is significant and necessary – also in the future.

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