nataliePhD research student

Project: The role of human excreta in building sustainable rural futures

Twitter: @natalie__alice

Despite ongoing efforts to improve access to energy in India, approximately 240 million people remain without access to electricity. Of this, over 90% live in rural areas, where the lack of access to modern energy has significant implications for economic development, rural livelihoods, environmental sustainability in addition to social dignity & health. In many areas of India, providing energy for the most basic of needs such as cooking and lighting is still a major challenge for the rural poor with the majority of rural households depending on traditional biomass fuels (firewood and agro-waste) and kerosene, both of which have serious health and environmental implications. The potential benefits of these small-scale anaerobic digesters (ADs) are three-fold; they provide a clean, cheap alternative fuel; they produce a marketable biofertiliser; they reduce gender divisions of labour by reducing the need for women and children to collect fuel wood. AD technologies that are able to convert toilet wastes into methane biogas have the potential to improve sanitation and reduce disease burden in rural communities in the Global South. Despite the potential of this underutilised resource to reduce poverty by improving energy access, reduce the prevalence of diarrhoeal diseases and facilitate more sustainable livelihoods, there are significant social & cultural challenges facing the use of biogas derived from human excreta. Therefore, the overarching aim of this project will be to quantify and enhance the role of domestic toilet AD systems for improving sustainable rural futures in India by, (i) increasing rural household energy security (ii) improving sanitation through the removal of harmful pathogens and (iii) increasing food security and sustainable livelihoods by producing a product that is safe to use as a soil amendment in agronomic systems. Central to this project will be an evaluation of the social & cultural acceptability of handling & processing human excreta in rural India.

Key research questions:

  1. Can feedstock composition be optimised to increase biogas quantity & quality?
  2. Is anaerobic digestion of human excreta an effective waste management strategy?
  3. Does AD toilet digestate produce a valuable biofertiliser that can be safely used in sustainable agro-ecosystems?
  4. What are the social & cultural barriers that affect the acceptance of human excreta as a source of biogas and agricultural fertiliser?
  5. What differences regarding acceptability are evident in rural/urban and caste and ethnicity dimensions?

Funding Acknowledgements: PhD funded by NERC via the IAPETUS Doctoral Training Partnership. Host institutions are The University of Stirling and Durham University.