How to defuse the human waste time bomb in low-income countries

If the world is to achieve the UN’s goal of providing adequate sanitation and ending open defecation worldwide in the next 10 years, the faecal waste crisis must be addressed in a systematic way using fresh thinking.

A man walks near a toilet sign at the Reinvented Toilet Expo showcasing sewerless sanitation technology in Beijing, China November 6, 2018. [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

Half of the world flushes away their sewage without a second thought as to where it goes. But for the other half of the global population, their waste can build up in pits or tanks unless they arrange – and pay – to have it removed, leaving the poorest and most isolated with a growing volume of sludge that has become a health and environmental time-bomb.

More than 25 countries worldwide have made significant progress in increasing basic sanitation services in the past 20 years, including Micronesia, Cambodia, Nepal, Laos and India. But delivering dignified sanitation and hygiene needs more than toilets alone; it requires an entire sanitation service chain, which includes the safe emptying, transporting and treating of faecal sludge.

Poor sanitation, including a lack of access to safe toilets, costs the global economy an estimated $223 billion a year through disease, deaths and lost productivity, which is to say nothing of the environmental costs from pollution and overflowing pit latrines. And it also comes with a social cost, entrenching prejudices such as the stigmatisation of the Dalit caste in India as the country’s “toilet emptiers”.

If the world is to achieve the UN’s goal of providing adequate sanitation and ending open defecation worldwide in the next 10 years, the faecal waste crisis must be addressed in a systematic way using fresh thinking.

While sanitation is considered a human need and a public service, expansion of public infrastructure such as sewerage is often not feasible, whether through a lack of political will, a lack of funding to retrofit systems into high-density suburbs or expand existing networks, or simply insufficient water to flush the pipes.

Governments must instead develop or adapt sanitation policies to be more inclusive of non-sewered onsite-sanitation systems, such as septic tanks and pit latrines. Such policies must support innovative and varied ways of ensuring that the whole population can answer nature’s call without the result building up and compromising their safety, hygiene or dignity.

To this end, researchers have identified a range of business models for services that empty, transport, treat and recycle human waste safely that could also feasibly generate livelihoods, incomes and new markets.

A new report by CGIAR’s research program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, for example, found sustainable business opportunities in India throughout the sanitation service chain. These included call centres that handle household sanitation needs, associations of small operations that de-sludge pits, and companies that connect toilets to bio-digesters and harvest energy or produce organic fertiliser.

For those in the business of emptying septic tanks and toilet pits on demand, the report identified the threshold at which enterprises were profitable: between 400 and 1,500 trips annually, charged at more than $13 (1,000 Indian Rupees) each. But it also found that when households were placed on a rota for regular de-sludging, profitability increased by up to 600 percent.

Meanwhile, another project in Sri Lanka confirmed a gap between the total volume of household septic tanks and the capacity to collect and process that waste, a gap that could be addressed by fostering a nascent private sector for sanitation. In Khulna, Bangladesh, for example, sanitation services make use of state-of-the-art technology to GIS-map all septic tanks.

By collaborating with researchers, non-profits and the private sector, governments could help establish a market for entrepreneurs across the sanitation value chain that would unlock lower cost, higher efficiency and more sustainable sanitation services than the public sector could deliver.

Once these business opportunities and models have been identified, the appropriate financing model must also be developed so that households are charged a reasonable fee for removing waste.

Tax-based financing, such as utility charges or property taxes, may be necessary to subsidise waste management beyond the limit that households are able to pay, while public authorities should also provide incentives for those emptying pit latrines manually to invest in mechanical equipment.

Finally, public agencies and partners must work together to develop a plan to scale up the number of treatment plants needed to process waste once it has been emptied and transported.

Almost all 7,900 towns in India need a treatment plant yet only 400 have been built or are in construction. The more plants there are, the shorter the transport distance and the better the business opportunity for pit emptying services.

In addition to market opportunities, the sanitation service chain also offers environmental benefits. For example, Sulabh International has pioneered public toilets connected to bio-digesters in India. This has created a simple, affordable technology to treat faecal matter in the absence of a sewerage network, or to reduce the load on the existing sewerage, while also contributing to the circular economy.

Dignified sanitation is a basic human need that does not end with a toilet, and in fact, delivered in full, can offer opportunities for sustainability through nutrient and energy recovery.

But this can only be delivered if sanitation is treated as an entire chain, with its own market opportunities, regulatory needs and an infrastructure that supports sustainable services to grow, whether sewered or non-sewered.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.