Sustainable toilets and their role in freshwater conservation

Who knew the humble toilet had so much power? With dirty water killing more people thanwar, projects designed to improve clean water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH, for short) have long been a cornerstone of traditional development organizations. Unfortunately, when implemented without the environment in mind, these projects can damage delicate ecosystems. To secure clean water for people and nature, WWF is dedicated to integrating WASH and freshwater conservation through research, policy improvements, and innovative field projects.



In the developing world, 90% of sewage is discharged directly into rivers, lakes, and oceans, contaminating water vital to both people and nature. Toilets play a crucial role in keeping human waste out of ecosystems.


Untreated or inadequately managed human waste is one of the most significant sources of water pollution around the world. This kind of discharge not only sullies the water people depend on, but it can also harm biodiversity and even create lifeless “dead zones.”


Almost everyone’s downstream is someone else’s upstream. Proper placement of taps and toilets helps ensure that freshwater sources are safe from contamination. Protecting headwater ecosystems, like the mountaintop forests where fresh water begins, protects that supply of clean water while securing habitat for biodiversity.


A healthy environment depends on community members being healthy enough to manage their natural resources well. Sustainable sanitation projects reduce the risk of disease and spare people—especially women and children—from the dangers of relieving themselves in the woods.

Not One Size Fits All

Because ecosystems are so varied, sustainable toilets look dramatically different depending on the context. Here’s one example of how a pit latrine in rural Cameroon canbe built to meet both human and environmental needs:

© Andy Dearwater/WWF-US
1. LATRINE LOCATION AND DEPTH - To avoid polluting water sources, the pit for the latrine is dug at a safe distance from the nearest drinking well—and no deeper than about 3.5 feet above the water table.
© Andy Dearwater/WWF-US
2. PIT SHAPE - A cylindrical hole reinforced with bricks allows for maximum stability.
© Andy Dearwater/WWF-US
3. PIT COVER - A simple concrete slab with a sloping squat-hole allowing for easy waste disposal covers the pit.
© Andy Dearwater/WWF-US
4. SHELTER - The shelter above the latrine can be built with whatever materials are most affordable for the family or community.
© Andy Dearwater/WWF-US
5. GROUND STRUCTURE - The earth is packed into a sloping shape around the edges of the latrine shelter to keep stagnant water from collecting.
© Andy Dearwater/WWF-US
6. SANITATION - A container of clean water or ash kept outside the shelter encourages users to clean their hands after using the latrine.
© Andy Dearwater/WWF-US
7. COMPOST - Once the latrine is filled, a new one is dug and the old one can eventually be turned into a source of compost—or the ideal spot to plant a tree.

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