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Washing Away Poverty

The Race for WASH Technology That Might Actually Work

Technology solutions to address water, sanitation and hygiene issues have had a litany of failures, but a few responses seem to be breaking the mold. One of the most exciting is the idea of decentralized systems.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A Blue Diversion toilet being transported to its new home in Kampala, Uganda.Photograph: Eawag/ EOOS

Around the world, tens of millions of people lack access to clean water or the ability to flush away waste. Putting these systems in place can be difficult. Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) systems rely on functioning infrastructure, proper management, upkeep, societal acceptance and more. And many rely on technology.

However, the road to improved WASH systems is paved with failed technological solutions – these failures even have their own Wikipedia page. Sometimes the systems are mismanaged or don’t receive adequate funding. Sometimes they fail for more unexpected reasons, such as public latrines being dismantled for firewood.

Tech solutions fail so often, says Vincent Casey, the senior manager for water at the nonprofit WaterAid, because WASH issues are not, fundamentally, technological ones.

“We’ve known how to get water to people since Babylonian times, since Egyptian times,” says Casey. The issue, he explains, is managing those WASH systems and making sure they’re maintained. Too often, WASH tech fails to take into account cultural or societal differences, which means that it can’t scale up or make any real impact.

However, some attempts at tech-based solutions are taking these challenges into account. Rebecca Sindall, an operations manager at the Pollution Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, says all of their engineers are required to consult with social scientists. They need to know how their products are being used by people in the real world, she says. One solution has stood out – decentralized wastewater treatment systems, or DEWATS.

DEWATS is a general term for off-the-grid sewage treatment systems that use microorganisms to eat and treat the waste. No electricity is needed, and the waste is put through a human-made wetland to filter it further. The whole thing is simple and easy to manage, says Sindall. The hardest part “is that people don’t just put paper and feces and urine down a toilet. There’s lots of other things that people will flush down a toilet, and some of those things … they’re a nightmare for treatment.”

This requires some extra cleaning, but, as Sindall says, “it’s not a particularly high-tech job.”

Toilets and sewage are the focus of many WASH projects, including Blue Diversion, which has designed a toilet that can separate waste streams of feces and urine. Both urine and feces contain chemicals, such as nitrogen, that can be used to grow crops. By separating the two and treating them, Blue Diversion hopes to make our waste stream more recyclable and sustainable.

Flushing waste away is one thing, but bringing in clean water can be a whole other challenge. In rural areas where people live off the grid, access to basic water services is not an option and water must instead be pumped from sources nearby or underground. A hand pump works only if the water is close by. Otherwise, more force is needed. Bringing water from longer distances is done mainly using diesel generators, says Casey, but that’s starting to change.

Solar-powered pumps can make a difference to how people get their water, he says. Although Casey admits solar power faces some maintenance and management challenges, it’s a relatively simple, off-the-grid solution. There have been huge advances in solar-powered pumps recently – mostly due to advancements in solar-powered energy in general. They also don’t need expensive fuel, unlike diesel pumps.

In fact, a 2016 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report states that the organization has been “exploring new and innovative approaches to water supply, placing an emphasis on systems which are affordable, scalable, environmentally sustainable and climate smart. Solar-powered water systems have the potential to meet all of these criteria.”

In many ways, meeting the water and sanitation needs of rural areas is more complex than in urban areas – there are fewer resources and fewer spare parts and the people who are trained to manage a rural system will often use that knowledge to get a better-paying job in the closest city. But urban areas have their own set of sanitation issues, says Michael Lindenmayer, the smart sanitation and digital health co-lead for the Toilet Board Coalition – a partnership of businesses that works to address global sanitation issues.

“If you look at a city, it’s like a living organism – highly dense, lots of circulation going on,” says Lindenmayer, referring to systems such as electricity supply, transportation and sanitation. “All of these different systems have to work together to make sense. When one of those systems doesn’t work, you have lots of challenges.”

Too often, this can impact sewage, leading to hygiene issues and the spread of disease. The key, says Lindenmayer, is, once again, decentralization. Even in a town or city, decentralized systems are more resilient: “If one part of the system breaks, the whole system doesn’t break,” he says.

In some ways, this form of decentralized sanitation in cities will be inevitable anyway, he says. As cities around the world continue to expand, they will absorb many previously rural, decentralized systems.

Lindenmayer thinks a lot about health – not just about how to make systems healthier, but how to prevent disease. Eventually he’d like to see smart technology implemented in sewage systems – even toilets that could collect your health data based on what you put down the drain and tell you when to see a doctor. Stefan Reuter, executive director of the Bremen Overseas Research & Development Association (BORDA), an NGO that works on decentralized sanitation systems, says that he is keeping an eye on smart technology, too. In decentralized systems, sensors could tell people when their tanks were full or where the best place to take their waste might be.

That kind of technology would be hard to implement successfully right now, but “IT technology may become simpler, more robust and transform the way we manage those systems,” says Reuter. “It’s starting as we speak.”

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