Jenifer Colpas spends her days installing toilets, but her work has won her accolades as a Global Changemaker, Young Champion of the Earth and most recently as a winner of the United Nation’s Lead 2030 Challenge. For Colpas, her unique waterless toilet design is more than just a bathroom — its an unlikely hero and an opportunity to empower women, protect watersheds and finally flush widespread sanitation-related illness down the drain for good.

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In 2015, Jenifer Colpas launched her social enterprise, Tierra Grata, with some friends. They were determined to address the poverty that had first shocked them on a trip to India and then emboldened them when they realized it was pervasive back home in Colombia, too.

“I was truly outraged by the fact that people lived without the most basic things, like access to electricity, a proper toilet and safe drinking water,” Colpas recalled.

Related: Evaporative off-grid toilets don’t need plumbing, water or electricity

Tierra Grata, which loosely means “pleasant earth” in Spanish, not only provides low-cost ecological toilet facilities for rural communities in Colombia, it also uses the toilet installation as an entry point to open dialogue, provide skills training and empower women.

Tierra Grata members and community holding a solar panel

The perfect toilet

Tierra Grata’s solution, the baño grata, is a simple structure that can be installed with local labor at minimal cost. The ecological toilet does not use any water at all, which saves approximately 270,000 liters per year when compared to a conventional toilet.

“Instead of water, a mixture of lime, sawdust and ashes is used, placed each time a stool is made; that mixture of organic materials neutralizes all the odors, while it is converting the organic matter into fertilizer,” Colpas explained.

In many rural communities, residents do not have access to any bathroom facilities and therefore must use makeshift bathrooms that are at risk of contaminating the soil or local watershed. The baño grata eliminates this risk, protects watersheds and even uses the waste to produce fertilizer for plants.

Some of the bathroom structures also contain a separate shower and changing space, which specifically provides women with privacy that can be especially important during menstruation, pregnancy or post-partum.

The link between women and water

Tierra Grata’s business model is more than just the installation of an ecological toilet. Instead, its team targets households and communities either headed by or with a larger number of women and girls. Once selected, the team trains females in toilet maintenance and sanitation practices, providing skills that ensure the facilities are sustainably managed.

In Colombia and throughout the world, the lack of access to a private or accessible toilet can deter women from participating actively in society — preventing them from attending meetings and trainings that would otherwise support their roles as leaders and decision-makers. If a woman knows there is nowhere to use the bathroom for miles around, she is more likely to skip out on an activity, and the community misses out on her contribution.

Related: Women are essential to climate resilience in the Caribbean — here’s why

“Access to water and sanitation is a basic human right, fundamental to the realization of all other human rights. Unfortunately, a lack of adequate access, either in terms of quantity or quality of water, often impacts women and children disproportionately,” said Lis Mullin Bernhardt from U.N. Environment. “In most regions of the world, women are responsible for helping their families get access to these life-giving services, so it is essential that their unique views and challenges are part of the decision-making processes and solutions. Tierra Grata is a great step in this direction.”

Tierra Grata team talking to a community

Around the world, millions lack water and sanitation

In rural Colombia, approximately 30 percent of people do not have an adequate system for the proper separation and disposal of sewage. Throughout the world, the situation is even more dire. Approximately 844 million people lack access to safe drinking water. Moreover, 2.3 billion people lack access to what is considered basic sanitation amenities: simple toilets, hand washing facilities and soap. Of these more than 2 billion people, 70 percent live in rural areas.

In many cultures, women and children are responsible for collecting water for their families, cooking and washing clothes. These time-consuming tasks often prohibit their full participation in school and other activities. When rural schools do not have adequate toilet facilities for teenage girls, many skip out on important lessons during their menstruation cycle and fall behind their male peers.

Despite technological advances and innovative entrepreneurs like Colpas, the percentage of the world population without basic sanitation actually expanded in the last two decades, from 59 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2015.

For many, the problem is not a question of comfort and privacy but life and death. Improper sanitation leads to the spread of disease and the contamination of drinking water sources. For example, lack of proper water and sanitation facilities can accelerate the spread of diarrhea and pneumonia, two of the top causes of death among children under 5 years of age.

“Water and sanitation issues sit at the intersection of environmental and social concerns,” Colpas said. “Lacking water and sanitation solutions contribute to disease, stagnation and the pollution of natural waterways.”

Hope for the future

Tierra Grata’s unique model not only addresses the immediate need for a facility but recognizes and addresses interrelated concerns — including gender inequality and environmental protection — which ensures more long-lasting success. Creativity and dedication from people like Colpas are promising signs of a more hopeful and equitable future.

“There is not a single environmental problem today that cannot be solved through innovation,” Erik Solheim, executive director of U.N. Environment, said. “Therefore, it is essential that we do everything in our power to empower and motivate young entrepreneurs. When we take advantage of that creativity, we can discover new ways of thinking and new possibilities for a sustainable future in our land.”

+ Tierra Grata

Via U.N. Environment

Images via Tierra Grata