World Toilet Day: Reflections from Towards Brown Gold
World Toilet Day raises awareness of the global sanitation crisis and the 3.6 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation. This year, the focus is on valuing toilets, drawing attention to the fact that toilets and their supporting sanitation systems are underfunded, poorly managed and neglected in many parts of the world. The call to action is clear: there needs to be urgent investment and innovation to accelerate progress across the ‘sanitation chain’; from toilets to the collection, transport and treatment of human waste. This is a key action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 6 of water and sanitation for all by 2030. But toilets are just one part of the solution.
It is important to ensure the safe disposal of ‘shit’, as well as the safe collection and treatment of sewage and wastewater. This is why through Brown Gold, we are working in four countries to explore critical issues relating to providing safe, sustainable and inclusive sanitation in rapidly growing small towns. These are:
1. India: Alleppey and Nanded
2. Nepal: Gulariya
3. Ghana: Wa
4. Ethiopia/ Tigray: Mekelle
Reframing ‘shit’ as ‘brown gold’
Our project seeks to raise awareness about the challenges of off-grid sanitation in growing towns, examining how local communities experience and live with off-grid challenges as well as the kinds of social and technical innovations needed to re-frame ‘shit’ — a harmful, polluting waste product — as ‘brown gold’ . By doing so, we can address the needs of marginalised people and communities and contribute to building sustainable cities.
Where we are working
Alleppey, located by the backwaters of Kerala, is often termed the ‘Venice of the East’ due to its extensive canal network. The region has become a major tourist destination in recent decades, leading to congestion of the canals and making the fragile ecosystem even more vulnerable. Crucially, unsuitable waste management has meant that waste often mixes with water bodies during heavy rains, increasing the spread of water-borne diseases. Through Brown Gold, we are examining the links between floods, sanitation and health risks by understanding unequal spaces and poor sanitary conditions as determinants of urban flood risk in the context of changing climate. When looking at the causes of poor sanitation management, we find that fecal sludge management (FSM) has not been prioritised due to both lack of government initiative and resistance from residents. In this context, we are examining the interaction of actors in the sanitation system, with a focus on the history of sanitation work, and issues of illegality, informality and social exclusion.
Alleppey: Mixing of wastewater in the canal
Second, Nanded in Maharashtra is known for pioneering city-wide community-led total sanitation (CLTS) in 2011. Our research shows that some women of ‘lower’ castes have had their complaints about broken sewage lines and the mixing of sewage with water pipelines ignored by government agencies. This has led to some people reverting to open defecation — even with the Government of India announcing that the country is 100% open defecation free (although this claim remains contested). As growing families expand their homes or construct toilets outside, the narrowing of the lanes impedes waste collection vehicles from being able to service tanks and access sewage lines. This has led to sanitation workers — who are primarily from ‘lower’ caste communities — to manually clean the sewers. Their caste and occupation results in them experiencing intense discrimination whilst disproportionately exposing them to sever health risks. Given this, we are analysing how differential power relations affect access to sanitation, the role of marginalised communities in waste management, and how these inequalities contribute to further marginalisation.
Gulariya in Lumbini Province, was declared open defecation free in 2015 and is moving towards total sanitation, but ‘second generation’ challenges in managing the off-grid sanitation system persist. Poor containment along with unhygienic emptying and disposal practices pose significant health risks to the public through groundwater contamination. Only a minority of households use municipality trucks to empty and transport faecal sludge, and the poorest households often find it too expensive to access this facility. A key concern is safeguarding sanitation workers who are not covered by any insurance and have limited or no protective measures while emptying sludge. A Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant has been built, but is only semi-functional. While its construction is a promising step, poor governance means that the sustainability and resource recovery of the plant has much room for improvement. Thus, we are exploring key issues across the sanitation chain to contribute to policy and technology development to manage solid waste and faecal sludge to optimise the recovery of resources.
Gulariya: Fecal Sludge Treatment Plant
Wa, in the Upper West Region, shares many of the sanitation challenges faced by other towns and cities in Ghana. Here, two private vehicles collect faecal sludge from septic tanks and other types of storage for disposal to a dedicated landfill. However, it is unclear whether the sludge reaches the designated site. Preliminary findings indicate that farmers often pay to have the sludge delivered to their farms- although it is unsafe and prohibited by the state for raw faecal sludge to be dumped in such a way. Nevertheless, this highlights that local farmers recognise faecal sludge as a nutrient source, highlighting the potential of the circular economy for sanitation. Here, our research is focusing on opportunities of resource recovery and reuse of faecal sludge, including formalising these processes. With agriculture being the major economic activity in the region that has several women’s agricultural cooperatives, circularity offers an opportunity to introduce new approaches and support the ‘holy trinity’ of safety, equity and sustainability along waste-to-food system value chains.
Wa: Farmer using wastewater for agriculture
We had planned to work in Adrigrat in Tigray and examine low-cost solutions to treat wastewater for reuse. We later changed our site to Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, after the start of conflict in November 2020. Mekelle has a population of approximately 700,000 people. In May 2020, it was also hosting about 200,000 internally displaced people, causing increasing pressure on the infrastructure of the city. The faecal sludge management facility in Mekelle is located near the Ilala river — the city’s main source of water. Water bodies here are often contaminated by faecal sludge; either due to overflowing liquid waste from toilets, or the damaged FSM facility.
Mekelle suffers from water scarcity and wastewater is often used without treating for agriculture and domestic use, posing health risks. Given the extreme challenges caused by the war and the ongoing famine — the UN World Food Programme has noted that at least 90% of people in Tigray are in dire need of food aid — there are severe risks to lives and livelihoods. Due to the escalation of conflict in Mekelle and the communications blackout imposed by the Ethiopian government in June 2021 our work is now on hold. Humanitarian corridors and assistance are urgently required in Tigray to avoid more starvation, disease and deaths. We hope for peace for the region and the country.
We are examining the interconnected political, economic, social and cultural challenges associated with off-grid sanitation, and the varied governance and cultures around waste across the ‘sanitation chain’ to identify factors that can help in moving towards a circular economy. This will help provide environmentally safe and sustainable, economically viable sanitation services that addresses social exclusions and provides dignified livelihoods for marginalised communities and people. In the coming months we will share stories from the towns and communities with which we are working of the everyday experience and political economy of waste to highlight the various possibilities of (and challenges involved in) reframing shit as ‘brown gold’.
You can stay connected with Towards Brown Gold by following us on Twitter @BrownGold_GCRF.