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Pit Latrines Matter. Here’s What Makes Them Enormously Useful

A sign on a latrine in Africa that reads "Wash Your Hands After Visiting the Latrine"


There are many aspects of our lives that those of us living in higher-income countries take for granted. Often, it can take waging our own battles against illness to be met with the reality of our own extreme privilege, and to realize that many people do not have access to these same, often life-saving tools

Why Do Sanitation and Hygiene Matter?

For many in sub-Saharan Africa, access to clean water is but the first step toward the improvement of health within the community. It can be easy to get caught up in the excitement of a well or other clean water source being built and forget about the other vital element of the WASH model: sanitation & hygiene support. Without both of these aspects working together, a clean water source can be easily re-contaminated or lose its positive effects due to community members not having access or knowledge of sanitation facilities and hygiene practices. As a result, many continue to suffer from preventable waterborne diseases, even if an adequate water source is available. 

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As indoor plumbing and running water are not possible for many remote villages in sub-Saharan Africa in the near future, the primary method for proper sanitation in areas in need are pit latrines. This may be a familiar term to some, but for others, you may be wondering what a pit latrine even is, how it works, and how it’s built! (Read on to learn.)

What is a Pit Latrine? 

A pit latrine is the simplest and most affordable way to improve sanitation and hygiene in a community that does not have access to indoor plumbing. There are two main types of pit latrines: urban wet pit latrines and rural dry pit latrines (or simple pit latrines). Our partners mostly utilize rural dry pit latrines because they do not require water. This makes them highly attractive to communities affected by water scarcity, and they can be made out of common materials on hand. The cost to build one varies depending on the country, but the average cost for a dry pit latrine among the countries where our partners work is $327 per latrine “stall.”


Where to Build

Choosing the spot to install a pit latrine is one of the most important steps of the construction process. A pit latrine should always be built downhill from any drinking water sources. This is especially true if the source is a well and the ground in the surrounding area consists of fissured rock, because contaminants can easily travel through cracks. It is best practice to build latrines at least 33 yards (approximately 100 feet) from water sources, though more distance might be necessary depending on local geographical conditions. 

Our partners know their landscape well and are able to accurately define the appropriate distance to build a pit latrine from a water source in their respective communities. Latrines should also be around twenty feet (approximately seven yards) from the house (or building it’s constructed for) to allow for a short walk while preventing odors from traveling.

5 Basic Components of a Simple Pit Latrine 

1. The Pit 


This is where human waste is collected and slowly decomposed over time. It must be deep (at least five feet) with straight, parallel sides, a diameter of at least three to four feet, and ideally, circular, since they are more structurally sound, although they do require more advanced construction techniques. There are specific calculations based on the number of people the latrine is meant to serve. These calculations help to finalize other measurements and the length of time the latrine will be safe and healthy to use.

Pit walls can be lined using an array of materials: concrete blocks, bricks, cement-lined soil blocks, masonry, stone rubble, or rot-resistant timber. The surrounding area should be thoroughly drained of all water and not at risk for flooding as contact with water could lead to contamination of surrounding water sources. 


The pit should be no deeper than 6.5 feet above the water table during the wet season. In places where the water table is closer to the surface, a mound-built latrine may be necessary. This type of latrine requires little extra effort and can still maintain low construction costs. It includes building a mound so that the pit can reach the appropriate depth without coming too close to the water table, and building stairs for easy entry.

2. The Base


This is the part of the latrine on which the floor (or squatting plate) sets. It is a foundation that is impermeable, meaning no liquid can seep through, which prevents flooding from rain, and acts as an effective barrier against pests.. The base can be made of concrete, brick (dried mud, burned mud, adobe, etc.), or logs that are hardwood and termite-resistant. The floor should be at least four to six inches above the opening to the pit to avoid flooding. 

3. The Floor 


The floor (or slab) is built on top of the base covering the opening to the pit, and this is what the user stands on. It must of course be larger than the pit, and tightly and fully cover it, securely resting on the base to prevent collapse. It can be constructed using reinforced concrete, rot-resistant wood, or bamboo covered in mud and cement. It should be properly smoothed and angled downward toward the pit opening to allow for easy cleaning and drainage. 

The floor can allow for the user to squat, or a simple seat can be installed. The slab should only allow for a ten-inch opening to prevent a young child from falling in. The most useful and comfortable opening shape is a keyhole with foot rests included on the sides. A lid made from wood should be placed over the opening in the floor to the pit to prevent flies and odors from escaping. 

4. The Mound 

The mound’s purpose is to keep the pit and base from any surface water that could enter the pit and cause excessive damage to the latrine. This should be built even if the water table is not too close to the surface, even for non-mound-built latrines though in that case the mount would be significantly smaller. It should be constructed beginning at least 1.5 feet from the base on every side and taken all the way to exactly floor level. The earth that was extracted to dig the pit can be used to create the mound and then reinforced with stone to prevent it being destroyed during heavy rains and flooding. 

5. Superstructure/Shelter

This is a small room that should be created to ensure the privacy of the individual using the latrine. It can be made from any materials most easily accessible that can withstand the elements. It is set on top of the base of the latrine and should include four- to six-inch openings at the top to provide ventilation. A roof should be constructed on top and fully cover the entire structure to keep the user protected from bad weather. It should extend far enough over the walls to also shelter the mound and walls from rain. 

VIP Latrines

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Despite what you might be thinking, VIP latrines are not latrines reserved for the most important people in a community. *wink*

VIP stands for dry self-Ventilated Improved Pit. Although a simple pit latrine does offer a significantly improved form of community health and sanitation, it still by no means provides the same level of ease and efficiency as indoor plumbing does. Due to this, some issues can arise like foul odors and breeding of flies that can lead to some of the health risks you may hear about a lot in reference to sanitation issues. 

Again, our partners know how to effectively diminish these risks, and one way to that is by building VIP latrines. These latrines are quite similar to what we’ve already explained here, but with one added component that reduces the aforementioned issues: a ventilation pipe. It can be added to an already existing latrine by simply placing the pipe into the pit, then bending it to slide-out under the floor, and attaching it to the side of the superstructure. 

 A piece of reflective or see-through glass should be placed near where the pipe makes contact with the floor as well as a mesh covering over the top opening of the pipe. This light source attracts the flies from the bottom of the pit which allows the flies and other insects to escape (and be caught in the mesh) and for a pathway of fresh air to the deep part of the pit. 

Maintaining Community Health

As with anything that is implemented without community involvement and proper education, pit latrines do have the potential to be harmful. In order to ensure ideal community health and avoid contamination or the spread of disease, our partners guide their community members to properly maintain latrines and practice healthy hygiene after use: 

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  1. Keep the door shut at all times 

  2. Wash hands at a hand-washing station after each use

  3. Clean the floor every day with water or ashes 

  4. Never dispose of tins, glasses, and plastic into the pit 

  5. Compostable materials from the house (such as vegetable and fruits peels, sawdust, and leaves) can be thrown into the pit to cut down on odors, but the pit will fill up more quickly

  6. Mosquitos will breed in overly damp pits. If the pit becomes too wet, ashes or dry horse and cow dung can be put in to absorb water and foul odors

  7. Utilize disinfectants on the floor covering the pit but never put them into the pit 

Blood:Water also combats these health risks by allowing each of our partners to take the lead and decide if a PIT latrine is even the most effective method of sanitation in their community. If that is the consensus they come to, the latrine is expertly built by local community members who know the surrounding landscape well, and then the community is taught how best to care for and use their new technology. Our partners are extremely well-vetted, professional, and experts at what they do, and we trust them to know what is most beneficial for their community members.


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