Microbial intervention in Himalayan Dry Toilets

As we meandered through the narrow streets of Ribling, Tandi, Sumnam and Ghoshal villages in Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul district, we saw the indelible change of modernisation that had reached even the remotest corners of India. The cemented pavement had replaced the old mountain roads and the concrete houses were replacing the traditional wood and mud houses. In this new emerging transformation, small two-storey mud-houses outside people’s houses stood as a mysterious testament to the old ways.


In 2017, we stayed at the Center for High Altitude Biology (CeHAB)’s research centre at Ribling in Lahaul and it was during those field expeditions to the cold deserts in the Western Himalayas that I first came across the concept of ‘dry toilets’.  Just as we were getting increasingly inquisitive about these small mud structures, we ran into Mr. Jagdeep Katoch, one of the residents and a former school principal in the village. He patiently explained to us that these structures are called ‘ghop’ - traditional dry toilets used  by communities in the cold arid zones like Lahaul, Spiti and Ladakh  to uniquely manage human waste in the region.  

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Traditional Ghop in Lahaul

These two-tiered structures have an upper section, which is attached to the living room of the house; and the lower section where night soils are collected. After every use, a dry mixture of wood chips and ash locally called ‘fot’ is used to cover the faeces. The heap of the night soil is manually taken out every 6 months and left in the fields to mature. Thus, the compost is rich in nutrients and is a very useful input for agriculture in the region. 


These regions also receive very less precipitation throughout the year making water availability extremely difficult and that’s why it was intriguing to observe how people in these remote villages sustainably manage human-waste that’s beneficial for their agro-ecosystem. In the Himalayan cold desert, these dry toilets (ghop) help conserve water during freezing winter and sustain organic farming with manure supply. When winter sets in, people increasingly depend on dry toilets, and later in the year, this decomposed night soil is used as manure for farms.


For generations, locals have relied on naturally-occurring bacteria to degrade the wastes. However, the practice comes with several disadvantages as due to extreme cold weather conditions, there are very few microbes that can function at such low temperatures.  As a result, the quality of the compost is not as good as one would expect.


Additionally, the influx of tourism and introduction of modern septic systems has brought change in the regional sanitation practices with more people resorting to pour-flush toilets. This has not only brought tremendous change in age-old practice of using dry toilets, night soil composting, but has also put the availability of water under severe stress in already resource strained places. Dr. Sanjay Kumar,  (Director, CSIR-IHBT, Palampur ) Chief Scientist and an ardent advocate of bio resource has always inspired us to ground our work, research around social issues and due to his guidance and support , we found the best opportunity to address the issue of solid waste management in high Himalayan regions by scientifically intervening and facilitating faster degradation of the night soil through Compost Booster- a microbial formulation for rapid degradation of night soil to manage human waste in cold desert areas. 

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Distribution of Compost Booster in Lahaul

Distribution of Compost Booster in Lahaul


The decomposition of any organic biomass is dependent on its microbial population.In Lahaul-Spiti, due to prolonged winters with sub-zero temperatures the decomposition of night soil is often slow as the first phase of composting- the mesophilic bacteria phase- crucial for decaying the organic material are inactive in this temperature range. At CSIR-IHBT, Palampur, our team at High Altitude Microbiology lab, Department of Biotechnology, formulated an indigenous bacterial consortium from the night soil compost's different maturity phases. These cold- tolerant bacterial populations remain active even at such low temperatures up to four degree Celsius and produce enzymes that speed up the process of biomass degradation. The bacteria used for this purpose also have plant growth promoting attributes so that the end product is enriched compost high in nutrients and possess plant growth promoting bacteria.The financial aid from National Mission on Himalayan Studies (NMHS) by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) were crucial to enable key research on ground. 


The sample of compost boosters were distributed among a few households in Lahaul for trial in 2018. We asked the villagers to use a handful of the sample in place of fot and the feedback was quite motivating. They observed that the mixture helped degrade the night soil better and reduces the odour as well. Mr. Devi Singh of Mooling village keenly shares that  earlier he used to collect 20 "Kiltas" (baskets)  to collect the degraded night soil compost but after the using the Compost Booster, the biomass was degraded so well that he collected only 10 Kiltas which is of much better compost quality and there’s reduction in foul smell too. 


With increased demand and product popularity, we conducted awareness drives, interaction sessions and training programmes across five gram-panchayats  in Lahaul and Compost boosters were distributed to approximately 160 households in December 2020 and January 2021. In future, we endeavour to reach out to communities across the high himalayan landscape including Spiti and Ladakh for similar intervention. 

Contact for queries:
Rakshak Kumar
Scientist & Asst. Professor (AcSIR),
High Altitude Microbiology Laboratory (HAM-LAB), Department of Biotechnology, CSIR-Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology, Palampur-176061 (HP)
Tel: +91 1894 233339, ext. 441
Mobile: +91 98829 86355
E mail: rakshak@ihbt.res.in/ rakshakacharya@gmail.com 

 

About the Author

Dr Rakshak Kumar

Dr Rakshak Kumar is an environmental microbiologist at CSIR-Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology. His research group aptly termed as “High Altitude Microbiology Laboratory (HAM-Lab)” focuses on exploring the microbial community from extreme environments of the Himalaya for bioprospection. Lately, one of his major research areas has been the acceleration of organic waste degradation in alpine regions. HAM-Lab has been working on the improvisation of the dry toilets in the high Himalaya with microbiological interventions since 2017.