A new revolution of toilet systems using less water

“Faith will play a great role in bringing about a behavioural change among people as far as sanitation is concerned, let sanitation become first in our lives,” said Swami Chidanand Saraswatji at the opening ceremony of the 4th Faecal Sludge Management Conference (FSM4) in Chennai, India, on Monday, 20 February 2017.

Saraswatji is the president and spiritual head of the Parmarth Niketan Ashram; he leads a spiritual institution based in Rishikesh, India.  His statement supports what our very own Mr Jay Bhagwan, Executive Manager at the Water Research Commission (WRC), has always said: that we need to start thinking about the ‘next-generation toilet technology’ – we should move away from the current ‘flush-and-dispose’ and ‘drop-and store’ models to the new generation of technologies which aim to eliminate human waste at source.

In essence sanitation practitioners around the globe are currently facing what we call, ‘the sanitation revolution’.  Even more pressing is the need for new thinking about toilet systems that have to be incorporated into water-sensitive design planning and thinking.

“We cannot continue to flush away valuable and scarce fresh water, creating more downstream challenges in terms of water treatment and water quality. The sanitation revolution is about turning this tide and current practice towards more sustainable and universal access to acceptable sanitation for all. “It’s not all about flushing”, said Minister of Water and Sanitation, Ms Nomvula Mokonyane, while delivering her speech at the Conference.

Minister Mokonyane, WRC CEO Mr Dhesigen Naidoo. WRC Executive Manager Mr Jay Bhagwan, and WRC Research Manager Dr Sudhir Pillay were amongst the dignitaries that attended the Conference.

Amongst the convenors was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an organisation that has challenged the world to revolutionise toilet systems through what they term the ‘Sanitation Grand Challenge’.   The Foundation challenges sanitation innovators around the globe to reinvent sanitation systems technologies that can go off-the-grid.  This innovation can only be achieved through the introduction and use of technological advances that bring about benefits at every step of the sanitation value chain.

Speaking at the conference, Naidoo said, “With existing waterborne systems, we can change to more efficient flushing, conveyance and treatment systems. The movement here is from high-energy technologies towards a bio-refinery approach that integrates treatment processes to produce fuels, energy or beneficiated products. There is also an opportunity for water-efficient flushing and conveyance systems”.

Since 2011, sanitation-focussed organisations around the world have been meeting under the banner of faecal sludge management to share and brainstorm potential sanitation solutions, to formulate policy recommendations that promote best practices, and to identify lessons learned in how to make faecal sludge management an integral part of sanitation service delivery. One such conference was held in Durban in 2012. The conference brings together professionals working in the sanitation sector, including utilities, service providers, cities, governments, academics, scientists, consultants, donors and industries, to support the global initiative of disseminating sustainable solutions for FSM.

While speaking at the Conference Minister Mokonyane said, “We have been hugely encouraged by the successes of the Sanitation Research Fund for Africa (SRFA) project generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation and led by the WRC. In the SRFA, we have demonstrated very successfully new innovative sanitation solutions and implementation models in 11 Southern African countries. As a community of practice, we stand ready to move into the next steps of scale-up for widespread coverage as we endeavour to meet the ambitious and necessary SDG for universal access to safe and sustainable sanitation”.

African Day on Faecal Sludge Management

Adding to the FSM4 programme, the WRC hosted an African Day on Faecal Sludge Management, also with funding support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the Sanitation Research Fund for Africa (SRFA) Programme. The workshop highlighted recent advances in R&D in sanitation on the African continent, as well as good practices and innovation. The workshop included solutions applied at demonstration-scale. It provided an opportunity for the community of practice to learn from one another about the advances in sanitation technology based on evidence-based research and applied at scale.

Although sanitation challenges are still huge in many countries in the African continent, big strides have been made in moving towards a sanitation revolution.  In Kampala, Uganda, for example, Water for People – a NGO – was commissioned by the WRC in 2013 through a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to lead a project on ‘Sanitation as a business: the Kampala SaniHub Project’. The purpose of that project was to provide services to people by incorporating innovative products across the sanitation value chain that makes sanitation servicing businesses more viable.

Leading the panel discussion, Minister Mokonyane said, “Africa has an opportunity to leap-frog, to jump over the waterborne sewage dominated solutions into the space of innovative low- and no-water solutions. Africa and South Asia can lead the global sanitation revolution. Africa is available as a global laboratory for ‘new sanitation’ with regards to technologies, new regulatory regimes as well as new governance models.”

Mokonyane also stressed that there is a need for international partnerships and investments in carrying out some innovation and uptake on the African continent.

Africa has the advantage of planning from scratch and freedom from the burden of retro-fitting, as is currently being experienced in the developed world. It is a continent open to sanitation innovation.

FSM International leadership awards

For South Africa, the sanitation revolution means deviating from the usual approaches.  Even more challenging is the transformation of the sanitation research agenda such that it matches the global and national expectations leading to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets.

The WRC works hard to drive sanitation innovation in collaboration with partner institutions such as the Department of Science and Technology, for example, in piloting the pour flush toilet system. It is for this reason that WRC CEO Dhesigen Naidoo was recognised at the FSM4 Conference as one of the 50 most prominent impact leaders in the world. In addition, Jay Bhagwan has done incredible work in shaping the thinking in this innovation space.  The Conference recognised Bhagwan as an International Water Leader for Water Conservation. The awards mean a lot to South Africa as they inspire new thinking and push for even more innovative ideas.

Visit our Knowledge Hub www.wrc.org.za for more information on sanitation innovations.

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