Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hackathon! (for Sanitation)

Hackathons are events where computer programmers with a common interest get together to develop or advance a software-based agenda.  December 1st and 2nd will see the launch of a major Sanitation Hackathon, borne out of a collaboration between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, Random Hacks of Kindness, Nokia, and others.  All over the world, programmers will team up with sanitation experts to begin development on information technology solutions to global sanitation issues.

Right now, and in the remaining days before the hackathons convene, the Sanitation Hackathon is soliciting "problem definitions that highlight specific sanitation challenges that could be mitigated by innovative [information and communication technologies]".  Examples of already submitted problem definitions include septage management monitoring, interactive applications to promote behaviour change, improving data quality and quantity concerning cesspool/pit water flows, and rapid financial sustainability assessments of sanitation solutions.  If you have any ideas, you can submit here (but first you have to register).

To participate in the event, you can register by finding your site and following its unique registration process here.  Toilet hackers, based out of NYC, is helping organize the hackathon throughout the United States.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Slum life in Dhaka: Plastic pipes and hanging latrines

From the shore, I can see open sewers and other unidentifiable waste streams flowing energetically into the water I am about to cross. “Come!” beckoned the ferryman. I hesitate, but the low-riding wooden skiff appears to be the sole way to get to where I am going so I step in and quickly sit down on the planks. Soon enough I am climbing out and into the midst of Korail, one of the largest slums in Dhaka, Bangladesh. During the past year, Dhaka has earned two impressive global superlatives: the densest metropolitan area and the least livable city in the world. Some estimates put population density in Dhaka's slums at 2.7 million people per square mile. 

One of the most pressing problems in Korail is access to water and sanitation services. As in many slums in Dhaka, the municipal water and sewerage authority won’t build water and sanitation infrastructure on untenured land. Thus, the residents must rely on a system of illegal plastic flexible pipes to get their drinking water. These flimsy pipes flow through the polluted river I just crossed and weave their way through the open sewage ditches lining Korail’s dirt roads.

We stop walking to watch young women collect water from the plastic pipes. They fill up kolshis, traditional aluminum water pots with narrow necks, as well as plastic soda bottles.  My tour guide and interpreter is from the International Center for Diarrheal Diseases Research, or the “cholera hospital,” as dubbed by locals. We ask the women how often the water comes. Once per day, usually in the morning, but the actual time varies daily, they explain.

We continue through a concrete courtyard encircled by rooms with clothe doors; each is home to a single family. This is a typical living arrangement in Dhaka slums, with 10-15 families sharing a common cooking area, water supply, and toilet. Drinking water is rarely treated, but when it is, boiling is the preferred method. There is no gas stove in the compound - families must use charcoal to cook and boil water. I ask to observe the compound’s toilet, but it is broken. They use the neighbor’s, a “hanging latrine,” which is a wood platform suspended over water flowing into the lake we crossed earlier.  These are quite common in Korail, considering the community is surrounded by water.

Getting clean and cheap drinking water to Dhaka’s slum residents is an enormous task, and one of the main objectives of my research in Bangladesh. Today, the plastic pipes and hanging latrines give me an idea of the challenges ahead.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Happy World Toilet Day! And some reflections on mid-sized city public toilets..

Happy World Toilet Day!

A few recent news articles from the city I've done my research in - Hubli, India - provides some insight into the options that municipalities consider when deciding to upgrade public toilets. While there's been a lot of good news around development of pay-per-use, community managed public toilet blocks in slums in the mega-cities in India, there is little focus on public toilets in Tier II cities like Hubli, and also not much attention paid to toilets for public use in downtown areas. After many trips running errands at the market downtown Hubli, I can attest how hard it is to find a toilet except at (some) restaurants. The only public ones I've seen are men's urinals that is little more than a wall to stand behind.

Hubli is considering getting pay-per-use toilets that will automatically turn on lights and flush toilets. Public toilets! Except, hopefully not these ones. Though the article says these have been successful in many western countries, this has not been true in the U.S., where cities have started selling off their self-cleaning toilets en masse. Only Portland  has had success with public toilets and then only because they are designed to be unfriendly and no-frills. I can imagine how exciting introducing new technology into toilets seems, and the appeal of what's touted to be cutting-edge, self-cleaning technology; except, why don't they hear about these failures in the U.S.?

It seems other 'technology' solutions are appealing to the Hubli municipality: another news article reports that the city is considering mobile toilets or bio-toilets. While these make for some great buzz words and certainly these options could work (port-a-potties certainly work in the U.S., and eco-san has a huge fan base), all of these solutions Hubli suggest that they just need a drop of technology to solve the problem - which, as we know, is not the answer.

This brings up a good point: after seeing some of the municipality working in a city like Hubli, it seems sources of information and knowledge to help cities plan for elements of water and sanitation are sparse.  Where would a mid-sized city like Hubli find out about options for providing public toilets, using examples from elsewhere in India or for similar cities across the world? Other than some WSP reports, I can't think of a good way that exists for disseminating and sharing this kind of information in a way that municipalities can easily access and understand it. Instead, they hear news reports and industry pamphlets where technologies sound alluring and attractive and include these buzz-words (bio-, automatic, portable, energy-producing), convincing cities they need these buzz-words too. How can cities and towns find out about failures as well as successes, and what won't work (not just the headlines of "San Francisco invests in self-cleaning toilets", but also the end of the story, "San Francisco sells failed toilets")? While there's great NGOs doing work around developing solutions for rural areas or off-grid slums, how can we assist municipalities, who often have the ability to reach to large populations, in planning sanitation for their cities? I think this - working with utilities and municipalities to help them make informed decisions about their sanitation systems, from collection to treatment and disposal - is one of the major challenges we've barely started to address.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Inadequate Sanitation Is Not Only a Developing World Problem

Those of us working in the international sector occasionally need reminders that developed countries, like the United States, also suffer from inadequate sanitation.  One reminder is the failure of US wastewater systems during large storm events.  Hurricane Sandy, which hit the east coast early last week, caused substantial quantities of sewage to leak into United States waterways.  In many cases, this was the result of combined sewer overflows.  Other causes included power failures and, in at least one case, a sewage main break.  Below are a sampling of links (not exhaustive) to news reports documenting extensive sewage overflows caused by Sandy.

Power outages knocked out a wastewater treatment plant in Newark, causing 500 million gallons of raw sewage to poor into the Newark Bay:

20-25 million gallons poured into Little Patuxent River in Howard County, Maryland due to power outages:

That was one of only 19 wastewater treatment plants in Maryland, with (for example) Frederick county reporting thousands of gallons of partially-treated wastewater flowing into creeks and streams:

15-20 million gallons of partially-treated sewage flowed into Long Island Sound from overflows in Bridgeport, Connecticut while 60,000 gallons of raw sewage flowed into Seth Williams Brook outside Ledyard, Connecticut:

9.3 million gallons of raw sewage due to a main break in Virginia: