Don’t Let Your Waste Go To Waste!

More people die every year due to lack of sanitation facilities than from conflict


The stench in the streets of major cities in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is hard to ignore.

Its origin? A lack of sewerage, blocked gutters because people dump plastic bottles and a water purification system that doesn’t work. Homes often don’t have toilets and the communal toilet blocks are filthy. Sometimes people simply relieve themselves outside. Because dumping is cheaper than processing, the excrement of millions of residents ends up in the water that surrounds the cities. Even if there are basic sanitation facilities. During floods – which are frequent – sewage water sometimes reaches a meter high in the houses of the poorest. The result is a high risk of cholera outbreak which often kills thousands of people.

According to the WHO, a lack of access to clean drinking water and (inadequate) sanitation facilities kills almost 800,000 people a year worldwide. This is mainly caused by dehydration from diarrhea or cholera. In comparison: the number of deaths from conflicts is 75,000 annually. In many of the regions with sanitation problems the situation is ignored for the simple reason that there is no money to tackle it. People deal with the problem by finding a good place to live. This means that the houses of the rich are on higher ground where there is sometimes a sewerage system. Their waste flows downstream and it is only when the poor people living in the lower areas become sick as a result of the dirty water, that action is taken. Dirty water is accepted as an inevitable risk in the region.

Drinking water and sanitation in different regions
The Impact of Inadequate Water and Sanitation

One in three people in the world have no toilet


The discharge of waste water into the environment causes an increase in nutrients in the water which in turn leads to the growth of algae and a lack of oxygen. The discharge of household waste water is expected to increase further up to 2050. This means the ecological quality of water will quickly be eroded. This process, by which water becomes enriched in nutrients that stimulate the growth of algae and deplete oxygen levels, is known as eutrophication. Eutrophication is the most important problem related to water eco-systems that needs to be tackled globally. This is vital from an environmental perspective and because it damages economic activities such as fishing, aquaculture and tourism.

Every country, region, town and village needs its own local approach to improve sanitation and waste water purification. There are areas which already have sewers or a system of communal pit latrines with septic tanks. Unfortunately, the waste from these tasks is all too often discharged into the local environment. In these cases, actions need to be taken to improve regulations and compliance. In other areas it is important to take steps to set up well-functioning waste water treatment. In an ideal situation, the government should construct sound infrastructure. The most feasible goal is an international agreement with neighbouring countries which results in clean drinking water, modern sewerage systems with wastewater treatment and healthy surface water in every country in the region. But this is not possible everywhere in the short term so the first step is to start organising sanitation which will result in direct health advantages. After that, regions can progress up the ladder.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 offer support for achieving a broad range of improvements in the areas of drinking water, sanitation and hygiene. SDG-6 for example focuses on sanitation and waste water treatment and calls for adequate sanitation facilities for everyone by 2030. At local level this often means action to improve existing systems, the use of septic tanks and pit latrines. The goal is an end to open defecation.

Solid pollutant
Algae as pollutant

Recycling excrement, a viable option for waste?


In technical terms it is possible to make all sorts of useful products with human waste. From fertiliser to drinking water from purified sewage water. A nice sustainable way to contribute to the economy and stop the spread of diseases. Processing the nutrients from excrement to use as fertiliser would be a great solution for Africa where the quality of the soil is deteriorating in many places.

Nevertheless, local inhabitants are often against this for cultural, religious and emotional reasons. In many countries rich people buy clean bottled water and poor people are left to whatever products are left over. However good the quality of recycled water is, poor people still have the feeling that recycled water is a less desirable product. But there are now examples of success. For instance, in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, drinking water from purified sewage water is used. And in Senegal’s capital Dakar, a project financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation turns a third of the city’s faecal sludge into electricity and drinking water.

Whether we get rid of faecal waste, process or recycle it, the first step to improve local health is to build toilets. If no waste water runs into the environment, there is a favourable effect on all activities. The quality of the soil is improved and the danger of diseases spreading is dramatically lower. The threat of dying from dirty water is reduced. Just using your own toilet boosts your chance of living!

Eco toilet
Recycling of faecal waste