14 billion litres of untreated wastewater is created each day in developing countries, but we don’t know where it all goes



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Jacqueline Thomas, University of Sydney

To limit the spread of disease and reduce environmental pollution, human waste (excreta) needs to be safely contained and effectively treated. Yet 4.2 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, lack access to safe sanitation.

In developing countries, each person produces, on average, six litres of toilet wastewater each day. Based on the number of people who don’t have access to safe sanitation, that equates to nearly 14 billion litres of untreated faecally contaminated wastewater created each day. That’s the same as 5,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

This untreated wastewater directly contributes to increased diarrhoeal diseases, such as cholera, typhoid fever and rotavirus. Diseases such as these are responsible for 297,000 deaths per year of children under five years old, or 800 children every day.

The highest rates of diarrhoea-attributable child deaths are experienced by the poorest communities in countries including Afghanistan, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Given the global scale of this problem, it’s surprising sanitation practitioners still don’t know where exactly all the human excreta flows or leaches to, due to absent or unreliable data.

Poor sanitation to worsen under climate change

Inadequate sanitation is not only a human health issue, it’s also bad for the environment. An estimated 80% of wastewater from developed and developing countries flows untreated into environments around the world.

If an excess of nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorous) are released into the environment from untreated wastewater, it can foul natural ecosystems and disrupt aquatic life.




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This is especially the case for coral reefs. Many of the worlds most diverse coral reefs are located in tropical developing countries.

And overwhelmingly, developing countries have very limited human excreta management, leading to large quantities of raw wastewater being released directly onto coral reefs. In countries with high populations such as Indonesia and the Philippines, this is particularly evident.

A coral reef underwater, with clown fish swimming by.
Sewage discharges in proximity to sensitive coral reefs, particularly in the tropics.
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The damage raw wastewater inflicts on corals is severe. Raw wastewater carries solids, endocrine disrupters (chemicals that interfere with hormones), inorganic nutrients, heavy metals and pathogens directly to corals. This stunts coral growth, causes more coral diseases and reduces their reproduction rates.

The challenges of climate change will exacerbate our sanitation crisis, as increased rain and flooding will inundate sanitation systems and cause them to overflow. Pacific Island nations are particularly vulnerable, because of the compounding impacts of rising sea levels and more frequent, extreme tropical cyclones.

Meanwhile, increased drought and severe water scarcity in other parts of the world will render some sanitation systems, such as sewer systems, inoperable. One example is the mismanagement of government-operated water supplies in Harare, Zimbabwe leading to the failure of the sewerage system and placing millions at risk of waterborne diseases.

Even in more developed countries like Australia, increased frequency of extreme weather events and disasters, including bushfires, will damage some sanitation infrastructure beyond repair.

Global targets to improve sanitation

Improving clean water and sanitation have clear global targets. Goal 6 of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals is to, by 2030, achieve adequate and equitable sanitation for all and to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater.

A man emptying a pit latrine in urban Tanzania
A man emptyies a pit latrine in urban Tanzania.
Jacqueline Thomas, Author provided

Achieving this target will be difficult, given there is an absence of reliable data on the exact numbers of sanitation systems that are safely managed or not, particularly in developing countries.

Individual studies in countries such as Tanzania provide small amounts of information on whether some sanitation systems are safely managed. But these studies are not yet at the size needed to extrapolate to national scales.




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So what’s behind this lack of data?

A big reason behind the missing data is the large range of sanitation systems and their complex classifications.

For example, in developing countries, most people are serviced by on-site sanitation such as septic tanks (a concrete tank) or pit latrines (hole dug into the ground). But a lack of adherence to construction standards in nearly all developing countries, means most septic tanks are not built to standard and do not safely contain or treat faecal sludge.

A hole in the ground, lined with two bricks, and a blue bucket beside it
A typical pit latrine in rural Tanzania.
Jacqueline Thomas, Author provided

A common example seen with septic tank construction is there are a lot of incentives to build “non-standard” septic tanks that are much cheaper. From my current research in rural Fiji, I’ve seen reduced tank sizes and the use of alternative materials (old plastic water tanks) to save space and money in material costs.

These don’t allow for adequate containment or treatment. Instead, excreta can leach freely into the surrounding environment.

A white pipe juts out of a blue plastic tank and into the ground.
A ‘non-standard’ septic tank, which uses plastic, in Fiji.
Jacqueline Thomas, Author provided

A standard septic tank is designed to be desludged periodically, where the settled solids at the bottom of the tanks are removed by large vacuum trucks and disposed of safely. So, having a non-standard septic tank is further incentivised as the lack of sealed chambers reduces the accumulation of sludge, delaying costly emptying fees.

Another key challenge with data collection is how to determine if the sanitation infrastructure if functioning correctly. Even if the original design was built to a quality standard, in many circumstances there are significant deficiencies in operational and maintenance activities that lead to the system not working properly.




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What’s more, terminology is a constant point of confusion. Households — when surveyed for UN’s Sustainable Development Goal data collection on sanitation — will say they do have a septic tank. But in reality, they’re unaware they have a non-standard septic tank functioning as a leach-pit, and not safely treating or containing their excreta.

Fixing the problem

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 6 requires nationally representative data sets. The following important questions must be answered, at national scales in developing countries:

  • for every toilet, where does the excreta go? Is it safely contained, treated on site, or transported for treatment?

  • if the excreta is not contained or treated properly after it leaves the toilet, then how far does it travel through the ground or waterways?

  • when excreta is removed from the pit or septic tank of a full on-site latrine, where is it taken? Is it dumped in the environment or safely treated?

  • are sewer systems intact and connected to functioning wastewater treatment plants that releases effluent (treated waste) of a safe quality?

Presently, the sanitation data collection tools the UN uses for its Sustainable Development Goals don’t answer in full these critical questions. More robust surveys and sampling programs need to be designed, along with resource allocation for government sanitation departments for a more thorough data collection strategy.

And importantly, we need a co-ordinated investment in sustainable sanitation solutions from all stakeholders, especially governments, international organisations and the private sector. This is essential to both protect the health of our own species and all other living things.




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The Conversation


Jacqueline Thomas, Lecturer in Environmental and Humanitarian Engineering, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Developing countries can prosper without increasing emissions


Meg Argyriou, ClimateWorks Australia

One of the ironies of fighting climate change is that developed countries – which have benefited from decades or centuries of industrialisation – are now asking developing countries to abandon highly polluting technology.

But as developing countries work hard to grow their economies, there are real opportunities to leapfrog the significant investment in fossil fuel technology typically associated with economic development.

This week, researchers, practitioners and policy makers from around the world are gathered in New York city for the International Conference on Sustainable Development as part of Climate Week. We at ClimateWorks will be putting the spotlight on how developing countries can use low- or zero-emissions alternatives to traditional infrastructure and technology.


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Developing nations are part of climate change

According to recent analysis, six of the top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases are now developing countries (this includes China). Developing countries as a bloc already account for about 60% of global annual emissions.

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If we are are to achieve the global climate targets of the Paris Agreement, these countries need an alternative path to prosperity. We must decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. In doing so, these nations may avoid many of the environmental, social and economic costs that are the hallmarks of dependence on fossil fuels.

This goal is not as far-fetched as it might seem. ClimateWorks has been working as part of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, a global collaboration of researchers looking for practical ways countries can radically reduce their carbon emissions – while sustaining economic growth.

For example, in conjunction with the Australian National University, we have modelled a deep decarbonisation pathway that shows how Australia could achieve net zero emissions by 2050, while the economy grows by 150%.

Similarly, data compiled by the World Resources Institute shows that 21 countries have reduced annual greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously growing their economies since 2000. This includes several eastern European countries that have experienced rapid economic growth in the past two decades.

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Low Carbon Index also found that several G20 countries have reduced the carbon intensity of their economies while maintaining real GDP growth, including nations classified as “developing”, such as China, India, South Africa and Mexico.

‘Clean’ economic growth for sustainable development

If humankind is to live sustainably, future economic growth must minimise environmental impact and maximise social development and inclusion. That’s why in 2015, the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals: a set of common aims designed to balance human prosperity with protection of our planet by 2030.

These goals include a specific directive to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”. Likewise, language in the Paris Climate Agreement recognises the needs of developing countries in balancing economic growth and climate change.

The Sustainable Development Goals are interconnected, and drawing these links can provide a compelling rationale for strong climate action. For example, a focus on achieving Goal 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) that also considers Goal 13 (Climate Action) will prioritise low or zero-emissions energy technologies. This in turn delivers health benefits and saves lives (Goal 3) through improved air quality, which also boosts economic productivity (Goal 8).


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Therefore efforts to limit global temperature rise to below 2℃ must be considered within the context of the Sustainable Development Goals. These global goals are intrinsically linked to solving climate change.

But significant barriers prevent developing countries from adopting low-emissions plans and ambitious climate action. Decarbonisation is often not a priority for less developed countries, compared to key issues such as economic growth and poverty alleviation. Many countries struggle with gaps in technical and financial expertise, a lack of resources and inconsistent energy data. More fundamentally, poor governance and highly complex or fragmented decision-making also halt progress.

The ConversationIt’s in the best interest of the entire world to help developing countries navigate these problems. Creating long-term, lowest-emissions strategies, shaped to each country’s unique circumstances, is crucial to maintaining growth while reducing emissions. Addressing these problems is the key to unlocking the financial flows required to move to a just, equitable and environmentally responsible future.

Meg Argyriou, Acting CEO of ClimateWorks, ClimateWorks Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Bird Feeding Tips for the Garden


The following link is to an article about feeding birds in the garden. It is an American-based article, but I’m sure some ideas can be gleaned for Australia and other countries.

For more visit:
http://blog.nwf.org/2010/12/ten-simple-tips-for-successful-winter-bird-feeding/