/ 29 November 2019

Innovation in every drop

Thembi Mkhize
Thembi Mkhize



The Water Research Commission (WRC) funds water and sanitation-related innovation to ensure sustainable water supply for all. In September 2019, the WRC held its fourth symposium, titled Innovation in Every Drop. Key stakeholders, including award-winning scientists, ground-breaking innovators, renowned academics, policymakers, international development organisations, donor institutions, politicians, and private sector representatives attended. The message was that the world is on a precipice.

Water is necessary for the survival of life on Earth. It is linked to every facet of life and economic activity. Nevertheless, a billion people are water insecure and water scarcity is one of the greatest human challenges of the 21st century. Population growth, pollution, and climate change are threatening the sustainability of the world’s water resources. Data from the World Resource Institute show that approximately 80% of countries are already experiencing high to extremely high water stress.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimates that 2.1-billion people lack safe water at home, and 4.5-billion do not have toilets at home. According to the UN, an estimated 80% of wastewater (faecal sludge from toilets) worldwide is released into the environment without treatment. In developing countries, 95% of wastewater is released into the environment untreated.

In South Africa, the availability of water of acceptable quality is predicted to become the single greatest development constraint. Population growth (currently at 50-million and growing) and rapid rates of urbanization (estimates are that by 2030, 71% of the South African population will be living in urban areas) exacerbate the crisis. Coupled with the increasing frequency of droughts resulting from climate change, demand for water will soon outstrip supply. This will result in insufficient water for food production and normal household use. It also means that there will not be enough water to expand or maintain South Africa’s current waterborne sanitation infrastructure (flush toilets and sewage pipes).

The experts also explained that our current municipal wastewater management systems have not been maintained and are starting to fail. In addition, 15% of the our population still do not have access to adequate sanitation. Among those counted as having access to “adequate sanitation” are the millions in informal settlements and rural areas who use VIP toilets (pit latrines) that in many cases are not being emptied, or where there are no facilities to dispose of the faeces in an environmentally friendly and safe way. At present, 45% of South Africa’s river systems and 60% of wetlands are critically endangered, and there is extensive biodiversity loss. Water quality is further decreased by the increasing presence of emerging contaminations such as pharmaceuticals (e.g. ARVs and hormones), treatment-resistant bacteria, microplastics and endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) in our water.

The questions that come to mind are: Can we still save ourselves and the planet? If so, how?

The good news is that opportunities to change the negative global trajectory exist. When coupled with scientific research, innovation, and good governance, we can solve the problem by using our faeces and urine as resources rather than waste.

This approach is known as the sanitation circular economy. According to the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC): “The new sanitation economy presents vast potential for global economic growth, while addressing one of the most urgent challenges of our time, notably achieving access to improved safely-managed sanitation. It monetises toilet provision, products and services, biological resources, data and information, to provide benefits across the economy and society.”

In layman’s terms, the sanitation circular economy uses technology and innovation (e.g. self-cleaning toilets) to shift the responsibility for sanitation services away from national public sector entities and waterborne systems (sewage pipes and wastewater management), to local level and community-based off-grid systems and products, provided by small or large private sector companies. The faecal sludge is used to produce resources such as biogas, bricks, fertiliser, nutrients, animal feed and oil. Sensors in your toilet can also be used to monitor your health.

Sanitation thus becomes a mainstream business, and the toilet a delivery system. Waste becomes a wealth and energy generating resource that increases as the population increases. Empirical evidence and business cases demonstrate that the approach is feasible. TBC studies have estimated that the value of the sanitation economy in India alone will be $62-billion by 2021.

Internationally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has played a key role in promoting and supporting the research and innovation required for the circular sanitation economy. The foundation is perhaps most well-known for its “Reinvent the Toilet Programme”. The reinvented toilet is a modular, transformative technology that offers a non-sewered sanitation solution, eliminating the need for a piped collection system. The aim of the reinvented toilet is to destroy all pathogens onsite and recover valuable resources; operate without sewer, water or electricity connections; and cost less than $0.50 per user per day in a sustainable business model. The programme was catalytic in generating technological solutions, business models and research and livelihood opportunities. The foundation also facilitates relationships between private sector companies (manufacturers and distributers) and innovators and scientists to commercialise the innovations.

There are also South African initiatives to promote the sanitation circular economy. The Sanitation Technology Evaluation Programme was established to pilot and demonstrate innovative sanitation technologies in South Africa. Some innovations showcased at the symposium include:

• A “urine harvesting” device that uses urine to produce bio-bricks that are stronger than commercial bricks and suitable in all environments.

• Gender-sensitive urinals that separate the urine to use in the production of nutrients for agriculture.

• An online “sludge application rate advisor for agricultural use”. Farmers use the online interface to determine what, where, and how to use municipal sludge correct for their location, crop type, soil type, nutrient content, scale, and sludge source. It includes a cost-benefit analysis comparing the use of commercial fertiliser to municipal sludge.

• Pour flush toilets combine the benefits and avoid the disadvantages of flush and VIP toilets. These off-grid, cost-effective toilets are placed inside a house and use less than three litres of water per flush.

• The V-Cistern three-litre flush toilet comes with a fitted handwash basin and uses the grey water from the hand basin for flushing.

These (and other) technologies actualise the WRC concept of “innovation in every drop”. They are the core components of the sanitation circular economy and can have a positive effect on a range of areas including global economic growth, local livelihoods and unemployment, poverty, health, human dignity and energy production — and ultimately, they may help to save us.