Vetiver Latrine

A Vetiver latrine is simply Vetiver grass seedlings planted around a small concrete slab above a pit.
A Vetiver latrine is simply Vetiver grass seedlings planted around a small concrete slab above a pit.

“In our world of ever evolving technology where we have access to an infinite amount of information through cell phones that can become out of date in six months, we sometime we take for granted the basics. It is easy to forget that more than one third (37%)(WHO 2012) of the global population does not have access to adequate sanitation. Sanitation is considered the greatest medical advancement attributed to almost doubling life expectancy (BMJ 2007). It is estimated that access to adequate sanitation can reduce infant mortality (Spears 2012) to reduce the 750,000 childhood deaths annually attributed to lack of sanitation(Li Lui et al 2010).

A Vetiver latrine is simply Vetiver grass seedlings planted around a small concrete slab above the pit. Instead of bricks and mortar the long roots of the grass stabilize the pit and even remove environmental contaminates. Above ground the blades of the grass provide a tall, thick privacy screen that is effectively storm proof and cannot be misused for storage. The design is simple enough for the household to construct themselves with some basic training. Once the latrine is filled, the slab and seedlings can be transferred over to the next pit location.

Other than one bag of cement, some rebar, local materials’ and vetiver seedlings, no further pit lining is required. Once the slab is made and the Vetiver grass is planted, no other inputs are required. The next latrine can be constructed with the same slab and seedlings from the previous latrine. The latrine is affordable to the most disadvantaged families. A vetiver latrine is approximately one twentieth of the price of a traditional latrine because there is no need to transport a large quantity of bricks and construction materials to remote locations for the pit lining and housing and no need for skilled labour for construction. The time required to save for a latrine can dramatically be reduced from two to three years for a normal latrine (WSP, 2005) to about two to four weeks for a Vetiver Latrine.”

Read more at the source (PDF report):
Vetiver Network International (top site on all the hundreds of uses of vetiver)
Thanks again to Zafra for another excellent tip. The Vetiver Network International is a great resource. Here’s the link to all the documents that came out of the vetiver conference in Colombia this year.

22 thoughts on “Vetiver Latrine”

  1. Wow! It is a very good application of GREEN, HUMAN NEED and AFFORDABILITY!! Previous posters have said it all, and as one with some waterless toilet making experience, I am very impressed with the effectiveness of this natural system. It ranks along with making shelters out of the dirt under our feet! Thanks to all who brought this forward.

  2. Carroll,

    I suggest careful observation of plants already on your land, and plants on land surrounding yours.

    There probably is already a plant perfectly adapted to your climate conditions right there in front of you that can serve the purposes that you seek. Best of all, you probably can get it for free.

    My grandfather had a great axiom:

    “You’re never so poor that you cannot afford to PAY ATTENTION!”

    Pay Attention to the plants around you, and you’ll probably find what you need.

  3. Owen, Jay
    Honestly I was thinking of it’s use on top of my build plus surrounding my crops. Being that it’s a tropical plant, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t survive where I live. I had thought of it as potential camouflage around some roof windows. My hope is to put a growing green room in my build but, with the design of the roof, I thought it would be good to conceal the glass from the ground but, still would allow sun in.

  4. Owen,

    You’re right on target about sanitation, clean water, and health issues.

    This problem isn’t one of technology or invention, (as the Gates Foundation would have everyone believe.)

    This is a problem of education. There already exists a wide variety of technologies that are very economical that address these problems very well.

    What is sad is that governments only want to focus on large industrial approaches to the problems. Whatever they can do to suck up to the corporate mega businesses and the heck with families trying to scratch life out of the soil.

    The best solutions are ones that individuals can implement on a household basis using free, inexpensive, and/or natural materials locally available. If we were to educate people about the practical options that make sense for their local climate and conditions, and allow them to put them to work, it would help EVERYONE. Not just the lower income classes would benefit, but even the middle and wealthy classes would benefit. Taxes would be lower, and diseases would be dramatically reduced. Everyone wins.

    /rant off

    • Yes, there are thousands of simple, low cost, low tech, appropriate solutions. These solutions are readily available on the Internet at sites such as Practical Action, Appropedia, Peace Corp and Ashden Awards. Some of these sites have so much information it makes your head spin. The challenge is not finding practical solutions. The challenge is sifting through the mountains of options to determine what’s best for your particular situation. It’s difficult to stay focused because as you’re looking for one thing you’ll find 10 or 100 other great ideas. So yeah, there’s no lack of great solutions.

      I agree how corporations and governments work together to maximize profits for the few at the expense of the majority. I’m sure these people are aware of alternative technologies, but there’s no money in it for them going this route so they seek out ways to enrich themselves. But still there are lots of good people out there who accomplish great things no matter what.

      And I like your point how these ideas are not just for the poor. Everyone can benefit. Most of the world’s problems would probably disappear if government got out of the way or was vastly reduced in size and power so these appropriate technologies could rise to the surface. In summary, show people how to access the solutions online (those who don’t already know) and get out of the way.

  5. Hi Owen

    I am growing vetiver for erosion control and eventual thatching of my eco-lodge cottages (your eco-resort design). I am planning to plant it above swales to catch silt and eventually form natural terracing on my sloping plot.

    I am surprised to hear that the vetiver roof thatch only lasts 3 years as I have read elsewhere that vetiver thatch is long lasting compared to most grasses. Indeed the Vetiver Network site has a comment at the bottom of the cover page from an Ethiopian user “thatching of houses, stores & shades (vetiver grass gives long time service)”.

    Any suggestions as to your expeience. Was the thatch thick and tightly packed enough?

    Also I am toying with the idea of trying to catch rainwater from a vetiver thatch flat roof for non-potable use. Any suggestions in that direction? I have seen a pic from Thailand of a large half bamboo pole slightly angled across a thatch roof to act as a gutter.

    Does any other reader have suggestions?

  6. Carroll,

    This concept can be easily adapted to utilize different plants for colder climates.

    The key is to chose a plant(s) that has very dense matted root mass that will naturally sink roots at least as deep as the pit. Remember that you can always adjust the size and depth of the pit to match the root characteristics of the plants around the pit.

    It need not be only one type of plant either. One can easily incorporate bushes, trees, and other plants.

    Vetiver is an ideal plant for this application, and as long as you live in a climate that will support it, you would be wise to choose Vetiver. Only if Vetiver won’t survive your climate should you spend time looking for alternatives.

    If you really think about it, this type of waste processing system is pretty much the simplest form of a Reed Bed using Vetiver instead of Reeds.

    • It would help to have a better drawing of the latrine. The graphic they provide does a good job of showing the general concept, but it’s lacking detail of the slab and pit. What are the recommended dimensions for household use? How far should the slab overlap the pit? How thick is the slab? How big is the hole? How do they recommend placing the rebar? Now, I could make educated guesses about these specifics and create a functional latrine, but there’s a clear need for a detailed drawing and list of specifications. I say this because this latrine could help millions. Lack of sanitation is one of the biggest killers in the world. Some simple plans available for free on the Internet would enable anyone to build their own without outside support.

      Update: Do you want to help improve the world? Would you like to save a million lives? (No exaggeration.) Some of the biggest killers in the world are simple problems like lack of clean water, toilets, hand washing, smoke from cooking fires, lack of bed nets to stop spread of disease and so on. “Simple” problems like this kill tens of millions of people annually. All the stats are online. (Search “indoor pollution from cooking fires” and you’ll see around 1.5 million die annually.) And by the way, there’s no need to write me and ask where you should go. The world is bursting with these sorts of problems and it’s not limited to far off foreign countries. Years ago I seriously considered doing a photographic essay of some of the poverty housing in my hometown. There were actual shacks made of salvaged materials slapped together. This wasn’t a third world slum. It was in a modern American city. Explore the dead end roads in the poor part of town where you live and you’ll likely see the same thing. Most people however never venture into these areas and tend to ignore these issues.

      • Owen,

        I’m hoping to copy this design in a rural part of Haiti now. I agree, it would be nice to have some more details to shorten my learning curve.

        Do you have any idea where I can find them? Do you have a contact for the designer?


        • You’ll have to track him down online. This looks perfect for Haiti. Just realize it will take two years or so depending on soil and rainfall to get the vetiver established, and several years more to get big and bushy. Plant vetiver at the beginning of the rainy season. It likes lots of sun.

          • Bummer. I’ve already t tried extensively to find the man who designed it. I believe his name is Owen Lee. No luck.

            Thanks for the info about growth rates. I got the impression they used the toilets immediately, but I suppose the nice privacy screen effect from the grass will take some time.

            Although it’s mid rainy season I plan to make these within a week. Cholera is already happening in the community. The need is great now. The standard latrine is $170-$250/toilet. It doesn’t make sense to invest in them when these cost about $25.

            I’m considering sending some men to Pincroix where 300 of these were made and try to track one down to study the design better. Last resort is to just come up with my own version.

            If you have any ideas for specs, I’m all ears. ☺

          • Plant the vetiver for long term use. In the meanwhile, create a simple screen around the toilet with reeds, bamboo, grass, brush, etc. This could be done for free or almost free.

            We’re always available to answer questions. My email is at the top of every page under About Us.

  7. Very cool plant. I’ve tried to find a place in the northwest that sells it but, I’ve had no luck locating any place. I’d like to know more about it for future ideas.

    • It’s an amazing plant with hundreds of uses. Farmers make all types of baskets and craft goods like coasters, fans, storage containers, etc. It’s often used for roof thatch, although it only lasts about three years. That’s what we used on our earthbag roundhouse and now we have to replace it. It’s a very hearty plant once established. It will grow 10′ tall or so in the wild with no care.

  8. This is genius. Almost 100% natural, durable and super low cost. The slab could be made by a local cottage industry. (Another great project for places like Haiti.) Mass produce the slabs in molds in the shade and allow the concrete to draw slowly for maximum strength. Latrine slabs could be produced for around $15, depending on local prices. (Prices may be higher where all materials are imported.)

    Did you catch the last line in the blog post? It typically takes 2 to 4 weeks savings to pay for this latrine. That’s another reminder how fortunate many of us are. It’s also a good reminder for designers to keep costs first and foremost in mind. Simplicity and ultra low cost is key.

  9. We have vetiver grass on our earthbag dome. It prevents soil erosion, and can withstand high heat and a certain amount of drought. We cut the vetiver to half height every few months so it doesn’t die. Cut it too short and weeds can grow.


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