Despite the many societal benefits of providing hygienic sanitation, there are approximately 2-billion people still do not have basic sanitation facilities, and nearly 700-million people around the world have to relieve themselves in bushes, in water and on the street. This is staggering, considering that a hygienic toilet is one of your home’s most important medical devices — yet many have no such option. This serves as a reminder and an inspiration for the world to tackle the global sanitation challenge.
It has been 50 years since the first manned Apollo 11 mission landed on the Moon and numerous human technological advances have been made since then. Yet, as a global community, we have not figured out how to achieve universal sanitation access, one of our most basic needs. Why do we struggle and what are the challenges, despite the numerous benefits associated with sanitation provision? There are many reasons, but these are symptoms of a lack of technical options in the way we provide toilet facilities, which are limited to two extreme constraints: full flush linked to sewers and dry sanitation in the form of latrines.
Full flush toilets connected to sewers are mainly found in urbanised areas in South Africa. The basic design of the flush toilet has not changed much since the late 1700s. The S-shaped pipe that connects the bottom of toilet to the wall of your home and the sewer system has had the same design for centuries. The water inside the toilet bowl of your flush toilet serves as an odour trap; the flushing water is a transport medium to remove the faecal waste into sewer systems.
In urban South African homes, around six to nine litres of potable water — water that is perfectly safe for human consumption — is used to for flushing. Globally, this strategy has resulted in a significant reduction of waterborne illnesses. But in South Africa, which has uneven rainfall distribution and water stress in various parts of the country, this approach may not be viable in the long term. Right now, many parts of the country are experiencing heatwave conditions and there are concerns about water supply. Requests have been by water utilities to use water more sparingly.
There exists an opportunity to reduce or recycle water used for flushing. Toilet flushing contributes to around 30% of household water use. It seems illogical that we use drinkable water of limited supply to flush away our urine and faeces. Would people use six to nine litres of cool drink or fruit juice to flush their faecal waste? The answer would probably be no, but this indicates how little we value water – until we have too little or none at all.
It is anticipated that with high urbanisation trends and population growth, more people will desire to be connected to the sewer system, resulting in more potable water flushing and increasing pollution load volumes that have to be treated. One of the main reasons why South Africa cannot implement sewers throughout the country is that the technical option is costly. We are water stressed and cannot afford to flush away potable water; sewer laying is a time-consuming and costly exercise; and sewer-based treatment systems expensive to operate, maintain and implement. What are the other available options?
On the opposite side of the technical spectrum are on-site sanitation systems. These systems do not need to be connected to a sewer and are common outside urban centres. Septic tanks are considered as an on-site sanitation system, but by far the most common system used in rural and peri-urban settlements are latrines, also commonly called “long drops”. As the name suggests, faecal waste drops into a hole in the ground. The best attribute of the technology is that is does not require water to function, thereby saving this valuable resource, and eliminating the need for sewer pipes.
This is a temporary solution and it’s difficult to manage, as the number of users is highly variable, and the latrines can fill quickly, so they require constant emptying. The cost associated with the disposal of the viscous, sticky paste called faecal sludge can be significant. With limited options available, municipalities have little choice but to implement costly solutions, which are not sustainable over the long term. Clearly, there is a need for new and innovative toilets that close the gap between aspirational flush-styled toilets and rudimentary pit latrine toilets.
The South African Sanitation Technology Enterprise Programme (Sastep), driven by the Water Research Commission (WRC) and involving national and international partners, aims to solve this conundrum. The programme is not only driving water-efficient toilets: it includes new, innovative toilets. Sastep supports and accelerates the application and uptake of the latest, cutting-edge toilets through evidence-based policy adjustments, demonstrations, testing and science-based improvements towards localisation and industrialisation. This includes technologies supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet” programme. The revolutionary toilet systems have water-saving or water-recycling features, are aspirational in design, and, most importantly, eliminate pathogens and sludge production at point-of-source without the need for sewers. For informal areas or areas with constrained water supply, these solutions could be central to providing sanitation services and saving countless lives.
South Africa has become a test-bed for developing and demonstrating technology solutions. An important cog upscaling these new solutions is having appropriate process performance standards to ensure that the new toilets are able to meet a specific public health and environmental standard. This will ensure product durability, reliability and their ability to be manufactured. Globally, process standards for these technologies have been adopted by the International Standards Organisation (ISO), with many countries adopting the new standard.
On World Toilet Day (November 19), the American National Standards Institute will host a Non-Sewered Sanitation ISO training programme together with department of water and sanitation and the WRC to facilitate understanding of the new technology standard. Further training courses are planned with innovators, the building industry and municipalities. It is anticipated that the new toilet standard will provide impetus for creative and innovative thinking to develop appropriate sanitation solutions and services for South Africa and the region, thereby saving water — and many lives.