I shall never forget arriving in Mexico for a year of student exchange in 2005, how bad the state of the toilets seemed to me.
The lack of sanitation in developing countries, often disregarded by those of us who live an easy life, was shocking to me at first.
The thing was, I had grown up in good old New Zealand, where we have a proper building code, plumbing systems and the local council takes our waste away so we don't have to deal with it.
But the grim reality is that inadequate wastewater causes significant environmental problems when not dealt with properly. I remember the insanity I saw in Dunedin when studying, when millions were wasted on beautifying a reclaimed coastal promenade (that ended up being smashed to bits by big seas anyway) rather than upgrading the sewage treatment. Putrid globs of stinking fat ended up washing up on the beach as there was simply a pipe that poured raw sewage out to sea.
This appears now to have finally (and thankfully) been rectified, but the UN tells us that nearly 2.5 billion people live without adequate sanitation around the world, over 780 million do not have access to clean drinking water and 6-8 million people die annually as a result of disasters and water borne diseases.
To attempt to install treatment systems throughout the developing world is simply not feasible due to the cost and also the fact that if the western-style flushing toilets that standard underground sewage systems rely on were used everywhere we would run out of water.
The result is that 80% of the water used on the planet is not treated or collected.
So what can be done about it?
Once again, technology is looking to solve these problems by turning crap into a commodity. The same nutrients in sewage that cause pollution can actually be harvested as compost or burned to create energy, while the liquids can be converted back to safe drinking water.
Bill Gates put not just his money, but also his mouth to water that had been extracted directly from human excrement, to show how a project his foundation is investing in could create a solution. See the video below:
I believe that while it may take some time to spread, the implementation of technologies such as this 'Omniprocessor' and biodigestors (which compost the 'Humanure', treat the water and harvest the gasses that come off to burn or make electricity) are going to become commonplace.
Gone will be the days of the old septic tanks because, if dealt with cleverly, this poo has value.
What can we do to save water at home?
It has certainly been a dry summer again this year - meaning it is vital that communities take responsibility to save water. Obviously there is an additional incentive in Auckland in that the less you use the less you pay. Here are tome tips:
- A good start is to install a dual-flush, economic toilet - these use far less water
- Be smart about the plants you have in your garden and the times you water it
- Look into a botanical greywater or wastewater treatment system from Pure By Plants - the plants clean the water for you to use again for the garden.
- Check out Watercare's list of conservation tips here
- Harvest rainwater from your roof - I did this with a very easy to use kit and wine barrel from Barry's Barrels