Haiti has been battered with one catastrophe after another — political, economic, and environmental. The result is a country in which 80 percent of the population (about 8 million people) live in abject poverty and both food and clean water are scarce. As if things could not get worse, the U.S. recession has resulted in a scarcity of philanthropic funding, forcing many health and education programs to close their doors.

But in the midst of all this, two young Americans — Sarah Brownell and Sasha Kramer — started SOIL, a nonprofit that goes to the very core of Haiti's two greatest problems, soil infertility and water contamination, and attacks them both with one simple technology ... the composting toilet.

Only a portion of the island has access to sewage system, so fresh water is largely contaminated and has become a primary source of disease in the country. And because of environmental degradation and overuse, Haitian soils are almost completely infertile.

Farmers have little money to buy chemical fertilizers and the animal population (which would otherwise produce organic fertilizer) has been decimated as animals and humans compete for food. A typical acre of farmland in Haiti receives less than a pound of fertilizer per acre (compared to about 90 pounds per acre in the U.S.)

The SOIL toilet offers a way out, providing both a clean (and private) place to collect waste, and a source of badly needed fertilizer. The structures can be made inexpensively using local materials and are able to produce sterile fertilizer in one year's time.

The trick is separating solid and liquid waste. Natural aeration, microbes and sawdust do all the work and after 12 months the process of aerobic decomposition (which cooks the bacteria) is complete, and the result is a big pile of super-rich organic fertilizer. SOIL estimates that if half the human waste was composted using their Ecological Sanitation technology, farmers could increase soil fertility by 17 times.

SOIL has only constructed 45 structures so they have a long way to go, but it is a promising start. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times just posted a great video following the two humanitarian/environmentalists in Haiti.

FYI: Haiti is a case study of what happens when a country cuts down all its trees. About 60 percent of the country was once covered in lush rainforest, and it was for many years a destination for wealthy tourists. Trees for Haiti is attempting to slowly reforest areas of the country if you want to help out.

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