waste management
Toilet block and treatment system developed by Eco-San, China. Source: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Considering the projected urban explosion of African cities over the next two decades, how do municipalities expand their capacity to deal with sanitation needs when utilities don’t have enough power or water to deal with current obligations, never mind future demands?

The article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 4-2020.
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Almost 20 years ago, eThekwini Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, decided to explore using waterless toilets in rural areas where little to no services were in place. Constant assessment to tweak the project according to community feedback eventually saw the programme scale-up to about 85,000 waterless toilets.

Little wonder then that the municipality was chosen as a test site for alternative toilet technologies in 2017, alongside Dakar, Senegal. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the engineering consultancy team, Khanyisa Projects, has been working with the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Pollution Research Group (PRG) and the eThekwini Water and Sanitation Department (EWS) to manage the sanitation testing platform, termed the Engineering Field Testing Platform (EFTP).

Professor Chris Buckley, co-head of PRG, alongside project manager Susan Mercer, explained that poor sanitation lies at the root of many public health concerns. This makes it imperative that current modes of service provision and delivery change.

The concept of sustainability has introduced the need to consider the interconnectedness of systems producing concepts such as the water-energy-food nexus and the circular economy.

“Using water to separate human waste from the user originated when the miasmic theory of disease was prevalent. This theory implies that disease is spread by foul odours in the air. While being airborne explained some disease transmission (e.g. COVID-19) it was obviously flawed for what are currently termed waterborne diseases (such as cholera and typhoid fever). And of course, the miasmic theory has given way to the germ or pathogenic microorganism theory of disease. So a toilet using water without a safe transport system and subsequent treatment is just a pipeline for spreading disease,” explained Buckley.

As such, the Reinvent the Toilet programme, which promotes the development of technologies to enable toilet waste to be safely treated at or near the point of generation provides a different way of looking at sanitation.

“Being able to recover and recycle any water used for flushing/ anal washing contains and deactivates any pathogens on site. Thus overcoming the challenges of poor network services and the reduction of disease with dignity and ease of use to the user. A further advantage of the new approach of circular economies is to reimagine toilet waste as being valuable toilet products, which can be safely recycled,” said Buckley.

Teddy Gounden, Strategic Executive at EWS, said the point of the EFTP was to help them explore which emerging technologies have the potential to become sanitation solutions for local manufacturing and adaptation. Adapting innovative new non-sewered sanitation technology to address sanitation needs would require a complete change in how services are managed, policy adjustments, new standards and amended bureaucratic process.

The data and knowledge developed through the programme has enabled EWS to explore the operation and maintenance of innovative sanitation technologies with greater small business involvement in the service delivery model. It has helped the municipality to understand the community better in terms of how they interact with innovative technologies and thus assist the municipality to deliver appropriate technology with a high level of user acceptance in the future.

“The user surveys conducted during the testing period have highlighted that there is a willingness to pay for a higher level of sanitation, which has led to other projects to investigate service models for sanitation in informal and rural areas,” said Gounden.

While COVID-19 did stall some of the research work, Dr Rebecca Sindall, EFTP operations manager for the PRG, says the goal is to have all the testing done by the end of 2020.

According to Sindall, the engineers have been working on a summary, looking at the 15 different prototypes that have been in the field over the course of three years. These included toilets that used new urine-diverting technology, dry sealed front end systems or different back end technologies such as membranes, biological reactors and/or electro chlorination.

The different toilet systems were tested for varying periods of time, from three to 18 months, with five engineers going out daily to run, operate and maintain the prototypes. They worked in informal settlements and rural households as well as schools. Sindall explained the feedback has shown trialling toilets is a very context-based business: “What works in one country, doesn’t make sense in the next, even though everyone thinks that what you do in the toilet is the norm for everyone.”

Right from the get-go, the engineers decided that any black water systems needed to work on producing a high water quality. “We put a pretty high requirement on what we want from the water used to flush the toilet. We know the community ablution block in an informal settlement is one of the exciting spaces for children to play because there’s water, so we had to make sure that any children exposed to the water should not get sick. A lot of the systems were getting a good water quality,” explained Sindall.

Further, some of the systems were looking at producing biogas which could in future be used for small energy production projects, while others were producing solid, nutrient-rich products that could be used for fertilisers. Sindall adds: “It’s all very context-dependent. If something can be turned into a fertiliser in a rural area, that’s great. But, in a densely populated area, that is something you have to get rid of.”

One of the biggest questions the engineers were constantly looking at while reporting back on how different toilet technologies were working out was ‘What is the thing the technology developer may not have thought of?’. For instance, a system that required solids and liquids to be separated was essentially using a conveyer belt. This was tested in India with great success, but in South Africa, it was problematic because of the toilet paper. This resulted in many problems as in India toilet paper is not used.

Research assistant Fanelesibonge Magwaza, the research project coordinator from the Social Science team from the UKZN Department of Development Studies working with PRG, said their work started long before any toilet prototypes were installed. The social sciences team worked closely with municipality officials to engage community leaders and stakeholders to make sure everyone understood the purpose of the pilot projects.

Urine trap (urine diversion) pedestal developed by EOOS, Austria.
Source: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

“In most cases, people accept the projects because they know it’s something that in the future could help them. So by the time we get there, people are eager to know more and to be part of these projects. In most cases, we were well received and people gave their time,” said Magwaza.

However, he was surprised by what people were really keen on. Such as a handwashing station called the WaterWall that he thought was a small venture but that proved to be extremely popular. Normally, because of lack of space in informal settlements, communal ablution blocks are provided and located on the periphery of the settlements, meaning people sometimes walk long distances just to use a toilet or wash their hands: “So the WaterWall is convenient because it can be put in smaller spaces and it’s off-grid.”

Magwaza said he had to smile when he heard about children queueing up to use new prototypes rather than the urine diversion dry toilets they are familiar with, which they say smell and are unpleasant to use. “It was so nice to see that in us testing the systems we were bringing hope to people. It was a humbling story to hear that these toilets could be an answer in communities with no sewerage systems,” he explained.

Ruth Cottingham, project manager with Khanyisa Projects, said one of the reasons this research platform worked so well is it was a true partnership. “Without the municipality, you wouldn’t have access to the sites. They also enabled the political support of the project, without which the project would not have been possible,” explained Cottingham. The Pollution Research Group provided the important research angle and Khanyisa Projects, as a small private firm, had the ability to be nimble while handling logistics and providing engineering design and construction management services.

“The EFTP has been a way to create some job opportunities in communities that host test sites and a way to upskill staff both within the project team and among the community members the project employs – as they have gained new skills in areas they haven’t been exposed to before,” said Cottingham. ESI