Ka-ru la cha-at, nono le? “Where are you going, little brother?”
Coco thangches la cha-at le! “I’m going to give a poop!”
My time living with my sweet Ladakhi family has not only taught me about traditional foods, lifestyle, and some Ladakhi language along the way, it’s also taught me that Ladakhi toddlers are hilarious. I’ve happily adjusted to the rhythms and subtle differences of this home, living in constant sub-zero temperatures with infrastructure different from what I am accustomed to in the U.S. Although my hosts have installed a western-style bathroom in their homestay to appease the comforts of tourists, they also have a traditional Ladakhi dry-compost toilet, called dechod, like most homes throughout Leh and all of Ladakh. Through this age-old, hygienic and eco-friendly method, coco (Ladakhi toddler talk for “poo”), is composted and used as fertilizer for local agriculture and eliminates the need for water, especially in the long winter months when water sources freeze.
Some people may be wondering what this looks like, how it works, and maybe even be a little uncomfortable with the idea of doing your business in a hole in the ground. I’m going to attempt to elaborate on how incredible this system is, and how it is a no-brainer solution to ecological and water crises on a local and international scale. I’m no stranger to dry-compost toilets, having lived in rural areas of several developing countries. But this awesome science is so prevalent and crucial to the Ladakhi lifestyle that I’ve become much more passionate about this hole in the ground over the past six months.
The basic structure of the dechod is a small, two-story mud-brick structure, usually with stairs leading into the top room. In this room is a rectangular hole, a stock of soil, and a shovel. Once the deed is done, the user shovels a bit of soil down the hole to assist in the composting process. There may be a bag or box to dispose of used tissue paper, as it cannot be thrown into the hole as a part of the compost. Many people dispose of the ash from their bokhari wood stove in the hole in order to augment the chemical decomposition, produce better fertilizer, and reduce odor. The lower level of the dechod is where the composting takes place, and every year or so (depending on how many people are regularly using it) it is emptied and mixed with livestock manure for fertilizing the family’s fields, vegetable and flower gardens.
Many people’s first reactions to this are concerns about public health, pathogens, and the repulsion from thinking about mixing human waste in our food sources. However, many U.S. wastewater treatment plants will often treat the resulting sludge after processing and sell it for agricultural purposes. From a Western perspective, as well as having lived in urban areas within India, I’m used to having water wash everything away and be blissfully unaware of how it’s being processed elsewhere and further contributing to water pollution. Having toured several wastewater treatment plants in the U.S., I cannot understand why we willingly and happily feed a system that desecrates our precious little fresh water. We deliberately defecate in clean water, an act that is hardwired into land mammals not to do. So why do we do it?
Of course, when too many humans are crammed in an urban landscape, water toilets are a hygienic solution to keep from disease outbreaks and waste pile-up, but even many people in the U.S. are beginning to adopt more eco-friendly deposits and using the compost as garden fertilizer. Without a doubt, this is something that needs to be done carefully and strategically, but it is something that humans have been doing for millennia. In the context of Ladakh, the nutrient cycle is valued and recognized within the recycling of human waste, making use of scarce resources and living in minimalistic harmony with the fragile ecosystem.
The booming tourism industry in Ladakh has called for more western-style bathrooms, with limitless quantities of warm, running water in the high-end hotels. Water-flush toilets and cascading showers are antithetical to the very ecological fabric of Ladakh, and many tourism companies and homestays are pushing for tourists to use dry-toilets and bucket baths. An ongoing project of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, India Trust (SLC-IT), is to provide homestays with written instructions for visitors new to the Ladakhi dry-toilet system. In fact, I’m currently brainstorming with SLC-IT and our local school Matho about ways to maintain the school’s dry-toilet compost to be used in our Biodiversity Park and gardens.
Dry-compost toilets eliminate the need for water, as well as wastewater treatment plants, elaborate sewage networks, and the expenses that accompany the maintenance of these systems. According to a census conducted by the Ladakh Ecological Development and Environmental Group (LEDeG), one tourist consumes an average of 75 litres of water each day, as compared to 21 litres used by a local individual (Wangchuk 2017). Although Leh has recently started diverting commercial establishments’ fecal sludge to a newly constructed treatment plant, and thus relieving Leh’s groundwater from being polluted by excessive septic tanks, it still does not solve the issue of people using an obscene amount of water which is unsustainable to the landscape.
Ladakh’s precious glaciers are the main source of fresh water melting into rivers, lakes, and percolation into groundwater. However, these glaciers are melting too rapidly due to global warming, and Ladakh’s limited reservoirs and fresh water sources are increasingly polluted each year. The dry-compost toilet is the prevailing solution for a sustainable ecosystem, and if adopted on a large scale, could help ease humanity’s need for water once we’ve turned too much of our fresh water into coco and stripped the Earth of its nutrients.
In the Ladakhi language, the verb thangches, meaning “to give,” is a common verb that is paired with many nouns to convey a certain action related to that noun, such as coco. In my little Ladakhi brother’s case, he literally was going to “give a poop.” Although this translation is humorous in US-English, I like to really think of it as giving. Giving back a little bit of what we take from the Earth and ultimately “giving a poop” about how human waste can both negatively and positively impact the environment.
Additional background information:
Ladakh’s Faecal Treatment Plant
Wangchuk, Rinchen Norbu. “When Tradition Triumphs Modernity: Ladakh’s Dry Toilets.” The Better India, 25 Nov. 2017, www.thebetterindia.com/122341/ladakhs-dry-toilets/.