Community, Collaboration and Composting: Engaging the Border Region to Save Water and Turn Waste into a Resource

Nov. 5, 2011

The UA’s Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology (BARA) has initiatives underway all over the world, from the Bahamas to Indiana, from Brazil to the Gulf Coast. One project has UA Distinguished Outreach Professor and anthropologist Diane Austin and her team engaged a bit closer to home.

Drive just forty minutes south of the University of Arizona on I-19 and you arrive in Nogales, an economically diverse community straddling the United States-Mexico border. As a desert border town, Nogales faces many challenges from poverty to crime to water management to pollution. Here, Austin and her students are teaming with local community members to develop solutions for at least two of them.

BARA is building partnerships on both sides of the border to examine things that have traditionally been seen as waste products, such as waste paper, cooking grease, and yes, human waste, and turn them into resources. Since many homes in the region lack water, they suffer problems of improper human waste disposal, which has created ongoing sanitation problems for the area. Many residents still use latrines or open pits which can overflow during periods of heavy rainfall, resulting in sewage flowing directly into communities on both sides of the border and the Santa Cruz River.

Dr. Austin and her team created a pilot project in 2007 to bring composting toilets to the Colinas del Sol neighborhood, a community that lacks water and sewage services. In contrast to traditional toilets that use anywhere from 1.5 to 5 gallons per flush and send waste into the sewage system, a composting toilet uses little or no water and treats waste on-site for reuse as compost.

Led by Austin and local official Francisco Trujillo, members of the project advisory board included Colinas del Sol neighborhood residents Cristina Rico Velazquez and Martha Hernandez Lamas, local government official Adriana Guerrero Martinez, Hans Huth of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, local business representatives Celia Gastelum and Alejandro Almaguer, and educators Irma Fragoso and Rosalva Leprón. Together, this cross-disciplinary team developed a strategy to demonstrate how changing from traditional toilets to composting toilets might solve a number of the community’s ills.

Still, affecting people’s everyday habits is no small task. Austin, her students and her advisory board knew that success would depend upon a large-scale effort that would include community outreach and education, fundraising, planning and construction, and ongoing monitoring and assessment. Outreach efforts included workshops, home visits and tours, and even community presentations at local high schools.

In the end, the team successfully managed the construction and implementation of 35 composting toilets, including all the aspects of community education. According to the BARA report, with all 35 toilets being used, the community will save 94,080 gallons of water per year and turn all of that waste into useful, beneficial compost.

But that is just the beginning.

“We start the project, but the goal is for ownership to pass to the local communities,” says Austin. “We’re presenting our findings as an alternative to traditional technologies that use more water and create more pollution. In this way, we’re learning how to expand these ideas to a larger perspective, moving them outward from the city of Nogales, Sonora to the U.S. side of the border and beyond.”

In preparation for reaccreditation by the Higher Learning Commission’s North Central Association (NCA) in 2010, the University of Arizona has crafted a Self-Study Report documenting and evaluating performance in each of five key criteria: Mission and Integrity, Preparing for the Future, Student Learning and Effective Teaching, Creativity and Knowledge Discovery, and Engagement and Service. In this report, the Bureau for Applied Research in Anthropology (BARA) was cited as it demonstrates the quality of the University for NCA re-accreditation. The complete 2010 Self-Study Report can be downloaded at​.