My youngest daughter and I just finished watching the BBC series on filthy cities, where the journalist Dan Snow digs deep into the historical dirt of London, Paris and New York. For someone in the sanitation business of today it is quite compelling to see how many parallels can be made between e.g. New York of the 19th century and the reality in many mega cities today on dirt and disease, corrupt politicians taking the cash and leaving the trash, slum landlords making fortunes on impoverished slum dwellers, and sewage treatment plants that are unable to cope with the sheer volume of wastewater. My only disappointment on this otherwise excellent series is that Mr Snow misses out on this very obvious link to today’s cities in e.g. South Asia.
Dan Snow also talked about the gong farmers, or muck rakers, of medieval London, who did their best to remove solid and liquid waste from the city. The equivalent of gong farmers also exists today in many cities and towns all over the world. It is easy to forget that the majority of people in African and Asian cities rely on on-site sanitation, if they have access to any sanitation at all (WHO&UNICEF 2000, kolla Chowhudry). These on-site sanitation systems usually consist of pit latrines or septic tanks, both types eventually fill up and are in need of emptying to function in a sustainable way. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has financed an excellent study on fecal sludge businesses (can be downloaded here) in thirty different cities and towns across Asia and Africa, a study in which authors found out that 34% of the over 13,000 interviewed households across the thirty cities still use manual emptiers (Chowdhry and Kone, 2012), hence the equivalent of the English gong farmers. I have seen manual pit emptying in peri-urban Dakar, and it is indeed a gory business. An indoor household septic tank was emptied by a local adolescent who had formed a sort of canal on the slightly from the loo towards the entrance sloping hallway floor, between two for the purpose built sand walls about 0.2 m high. He then scooped up the septic tank content with a bucket and sent it into the little canal, in which the sludge slowly found its way out of the house, into the street and over into a hole the pit emptier had prepared before the onset of the operation. Incredibly messy and very unhygienic; raw fecal sludge is disease-carrying and poses health risks to today’s manual pit emptiers.
In rural Bangladesh manual pit emptiers are probably holding 100% of the market share of the pit emptying business. The organization BRAC (www.brac.net), one of the world’s largest NGOs, has engaged in pit emptying businesses after having been very successful in providing single and double pits to rural Bangladeshis (read more on their sanitation program here). The pit latrines need to be emptied in order for the access to sanitation to be sustained over time. Manual pit emptying in Bangladesh is as stigmatized, unhygienic and hard job today as it used to be in Europe in the past. It is, however, difficult to see how we can quickly move away from manual emptying in many contexts. A more productive and pragmatic solution today is probably to try and improve the situation for manual pit emptiers, which is one aim of BRAC. Fecal sludge has more characteristics than only being a smelly disease-carrier in its raw form. Treated fecal sludge, in which disease-causing microorganisms have been reduced to reasonable levels, actually represents a value as a fertilizer. This is known among farmers all over the world, and fecal sludge, unfortunately often raw, is often used as a fertilizer input in agriculture. BRAC is interested in trying to put the fecal sludge from the pit latrines they help construct into that type of good use, but without the pathogens. One line of BRAC development is therefore micro enterprises with e.g. pit emptiers working together with farmers to produce organic fertilizers out of fecal sludge. The most important nut to crack for this organic fertilizer business to work is development of cheap and simple treatment methods of raw and semi-raw fecal sludge from pit latrines to kill off the sturdiest of the sturdiest among the disease-causing organisms: helminths. BRAC has in fact launched, through IRC, an international call for proposals on this very topic, click here, so please, if you have good and simple ideas on fecal sludge treatment methods, do not hesitate, submit your proposal before Jan 11, 2013 to help sanitation development in general and Bangladeshi pit emptiers in particular!
Dan Snow ended the program on NY by highlighting how cities are tethering on the edge of destruction under their own filth and how we over the centuries have found ways to deal with the filth, not only through technical inventions but also through good governance. He said that the battle against filth will never be over, which is of course true (there is every day evidence of that in my own kitchen!). When sanitation systems break down, as in NY during the hurricane Sandy, cities are flooded with both liquid and solid waste. Other cities and towns, like e.g. Dhaka, are flooded on a daily basis with liquid and solid waste irrespective of whether a hurricane has passed by or not. There is still a long way to go to get the world as a whole up to speed on sanitation. Improvement of fecal sludge treatment is one good way of contributing to the sector development, so do check the above link and submit your ideas!
More interesting reading material on fecal sludge management and emptying
- Eales, K. 2005. Bringing Pit Emptying out of the Darkness - A Comparison of Approaches in Durban, South Africa and Kibera, Kenya. Accessed on Dec 5, 2012.
- Kone D., 2010. Making urban excreta and wastewater management contribute to cities' economic development: a paradigm shift. Water Policy 12 pp. 602-10.
- Kvarnström, E., Verhagen, J., Nilsson, M., Srikantaiah, V., Ramachandran, S., Singh, K. 2012. The business of the honey-suckers in Bengaluru (India): The potentials and limitations of commercial fecal sludge recycling - an explorative study. Occasional paper 48 (online). The Hague: IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre. Accessed on Dec 5, 2013.
- Mbéguéré, M., Gning, J.B., Dodane, P.H. and Koné, A., 2010. Socio-economic profile and profitability of faecal sludge emptying companies. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 54, pp. 1288-95.
- Schaub-Jones, D., 2005. Sanitation Partnerships: Beyond Storage: On-Site Sanitation as an Urban System. [online] London: Building Partnerships for Development in Water and Sanitation. Accessed on Dec 5, 2013.
- Seidu, R., 2010. Disentangling the risk factors and health risks associated with faecal sludge and wastewater reuse in Ghana. PhD, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Department of Mathematical Sciences and Technology.
- WRC. 2011. What happens when the pit is full? Developments in on-site fecal sludge management. Seminar report. Accessed on Dec 5, 2012.