They burrow and they build.
African termites and the sturdy, vertical mounds they construct became the basis for a building project for a handful of engineering students from Brigham Young University, BYU, in Utah.
“What happened is Care for Life, the humanitarian aid organization based in Beira, Mozambique, actually came to BYU and were looking for a team of engineers who could help them develop a better building material," said Jonathan Wright, a BYU senior.
"Because with the towns they were working with, most of the people would build their structures out of mud," he explains, "and when the rainy season would hit every year, the structures would collapse."
The runoff from the village's latrines, essentially open pits, would often contaminate their drinking water.
The catch was that Wright and his team had to develop a building material for these latrines, wells, and houses from resources readily available – and free.
Wright’s team decided water resistant bricks would be ideal. But because they were in a coastal village, there was more sand than clay.
Then they had a breakthrough.
Termites Mine for Clay
"As we looked at all the pictures they sent us from Mozambique of structures, we noticed all these big termite mounds," Wright said.
"Some of them are 20 feet tall, they’re just these huge mounds of dirt. And as we saw some of these pictures we’re like, well, why aren’t those mounds washing away when the rainy season hits? What’s different about these mounds than the houses they’re building?”
Wright’s team discovered that the termites would burrow down beneath the sand and bring up clay or silt particles, perfect for making bricks.
The students took the soil with high clay content from around the termite mounds and fired them in a rudimentary kiln.
A Better Sanitation System
The resulting adobe bricks were then used to redesign the latrines, the root of many sanitation problems.
They started by creating two pit latrines, which villagers could alternate between every year.
"So the first thing is we keep them only a meter deep, so we keep the well above the water table, which does stop contamination," Wright said. "You also have to place them far enough away from wells, so that as the waste filters through the sand enough, microorganisms will be there and actually break it down so it’s clean by the time any liquid gets to the well water.”
Each latrine will service about 10 people, or two or three families.
Now it’s up to Care For Life members to continue teaching other villages in Mozambique how termites can help build toilets.