Columbia University

Safe water and sanitation to promote human and environmental justice Highly Ranked

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Project Summary

The global Water and Sanitation sector is caught in a paradoxical state of two extremes. On one hand, middle- and upper-class communities who can well afford the cost of clean water, and sanitation services enjoy their benefits by paying a pittance (mostly by being part of piped network systems). On the other extreme, indigent communities in developing nations and even in the rural black-belt of America, who can barely afford their own livelihoods are burdened with absent or failing water and sanitation infrastructure and pay far higher costs compared to the rest of the populace. This project aims to overcome this gross human and environmental injustice through the systematic implementation of culturally respectful and contextually appropriate novel off-grid and on-site technologies. Such near-autonomous technologies also present the prospect of recovering energy, water and fertilizers, which could add further value to the overall enterprise of sustainable water and sanitation.

Problem Statement

Around 2.6 billion people on the planet lack access to clean water and sanitation today. Even in America’s own backyard, especially in the black belt in the southern US and on Native American reservations, this problem is pervasive. Overall, the bulk of the US population (80%) is served by piped networks for wastewater treatment. Within the remaining 20% feature some of the most economically depressed communities, who just cannot afford the services associated with onsite sanitation. Herein lies the paradox. Essentially the more affluent global populations pay far less for clean water and sanitation than those living below the poverty line. Lack of clean water and sanitation in turn leads to a host of challenges including poor health and disease, disparities in education and employment, social and economic immobility and even criminal incarceration. This is gross economic, social and environmental injustice. Through the MacArthur Foundation 100&Change program, we aim to develop and sustain a socio-techno-economic ecosystem centered on onsite sanitation practice. Rather than building bigger centralized systems for clean water and sanitation, which have a high economic barrier (often insurmountable even for first-world municipalities), our approach is centered on the adoption and application of affordable household systems. These nearly self-sufficient systems produce clean water and recover products such as energy and nutrients, which could be reused locally. The technology pillar of this project is supported and informed by a specific inquiry of cultural practices and protocols and strong institutionalization and education components to promote widespread acceptance of this approach.

Solution Overview

Our proposed solutions rely on onsite sanitation systems (OSS) that use the inherent energy and resources present in human waste to fuel its conversion to environmentally benign products. These include clean water fit for discharge or reuse, energy to run the treatment units themselves and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) in the treated material, which could be used as soil amendment. The recovered products lower operating costs and improve the ROI relative to current systems (no recovery). A key strength is that the OSS technologies will be meshed into the target communities through consultations and recognition of cultural practices, religious norms and social protocols and institutionalized into policies. In this fashion, we expect to enhance end-user acceptance and adoption of the OSS technologies. The systems proposed are equipped with sensors that measure treatment efficiency in real-time. The health of the communities served will be tracked through community surveys. The monitoring efforts will be based on the newly developed ISO 30500 standards (under Dr. Doulaye Kone’s leadership) to ensure consistency, rigor and accuracy of results. During the five-year project, we expect focused improvements in the quality of water, soil and air samples gathered from the target communities, in Lowndes County, AL and the Navajo Nation reservation in the US (target population 120,000), eThekwini municipality in Durban, South Africa (target population 70,000), Dakar, Senegal (target population 2.5 million), Coimbatore India (target population 1.5 million). Based on the success of this project, we expect to scale-up our efforts to additional communities.

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Project Funders

  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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