Pit Latrines and Cooperation: Challenges in the Field – Findings from the ISIS research team

By Kimber Haddix McKay – Research, Monitoring and Evaluation Director

ISIS has been working in Humla, a community in the remote Himalayas for the past 15 years. During that time, we have focused in part on improving the sanitation infrastructure in the region. In this blog, I examine the challenges we faced in implementing pit latrine systems – considered by the WHO as the simplest and most effective intervention to improve sanitation. I presented a paper on these issues at the Northwest Evolution, Ecology and Human Behaviour Symposium in Boise, Idaho in April, and the full length paper will be on the ISIS website soon.


In our work providing villagers in Humla with pit latrines, we have had a number of ups and downs. One way to look at the obstacles we have encountered is through the lens offered by the literature on collective action, which is about the kinds of cooperation required among individuals sharing a resource.

For the viSmall hut in mountain rangellage as a whole, latrines help preserve a common good – a clean and hygienic environment for all. However, in some significant ways, latrines present a collective action problem. Who will clean the latrine? How will the villagers get everyone to cooperate in the construction and use of the latrines? How do the villagers get everyone to agree to cooperate in no longer using old toileting methods?

An additional collective action problem also exists within the group sharing a latrine – who will keep the bucket used to flush, filled with water, and who will clean the latrine when it’s dirty?

These problems require cooperation among villagers, which has been successful to varying degrees.


Some key obstacles exist in the actual building of the latrines. It can be difficult to find land Latrinefor them in such crowded communities. Open spaces might be occupied by spirits, or may be considered inappropriate locations for such a ‘polluted’ feature. It is important to understand that notions of purity and pollution, so common among South Asian societies, dictate notions of propriety and decorum in Humla. This means that latrines, which are physically and symbolically polluted, are relegated to certain spaces. The ‘polluted’ nature of the latrine itself is underscored by the photo to the right, where a local woman has camped out on the roof of her family’s latrine during menstruation, a time period during which women are segregated from the rest of society each month (normally in menstrual huts).


In Humla, there are rankings of social status which can create a ‘’second order collective action problem” among sharers of a common good, such as use of latrines. This refers to the problem of how to handle a situation where some users refuse to cooperate. Who will object, and how will they do it?

LatrineIn one style of latrine that we built, waste is flushed using water from a bucket in the latrine, as pictured on the left. When the bucket is left empty, waste quickly accumulates, rendering the space unusable. But men prefer not to carry water in this society, and yet they are sometimes the household members leaving the bucket empty. So who will ‘punish’ or ‘police’ them for not cooperating? This is the second order problem. It is inappropriate for women to reprimand their husbands for not carrying water, or for juniors to punish elders. Similarly, who will ‘punish’ villagers who defecate on the trail rather than in the latrine? Our public health campaigns have targeted the second problem, and altering the latrine design has helped the first one. Work continues on these issues.

Catherine Sanders, ISIS Research Associate, and I are currently analysing data collected in Nakaseke and Humla. Stay tuned for further updates.

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