"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Finding Solutions to Unattractive Problems

As an engineer interested in development, I cannot escape the realities of solving problems rooted in human needs.  Yet, one quickly observes that these problems are far from attractive to solve.  Treating wastewater does not immediately rise to the surface as a problem inviting innovative solutions.  After all, we have grown absolutely comfortable with the idea of flushing our problems down the toilet.

With. potable. water.

Conventional wastewater treatments use drinking water as the sewage solution.  Additionally, economic issues lead to extreme water scarcity as clean water is hard to come by owing to developing water sources and distribution infrastructure.  People spend full working days gathering water.

I really enjoyed reading Sustainable Wastewater Management in Developing Countries as the authors really took conventional paradigms to task.  In particular, they presented strong arguments regarding the benefits and limitations of on-site systems and a fantastic primer on more developed systems that bridge the gap between “septic tank” and “water-flushed sewers.”  I appreciated the case studies coming from their own consulting experiences, which highlighted successes and failures.  The three opening chapters situate the paradigm the authors advocate.  Really solid locally-driven focus on sustainability.  Definitely a find for my professional library.


7 responses

  1. Great post – might check the book out!
    I’m an eng student – our project for one of my unit is to design and research (and build a prototype) for something to improve quality of life in a rural aboriginal community in the australia outback, we’re focusing on water and sanitation.
    Cheers =)

    17 August 2010 at 9:18 am

  2. Just wonder how truly eco friendly structures are forcing on every countryside household some expensive “modern waste water systems”during the fields nearby get spread with the waste mud collected in the waste water transformation units.
    Jobs for the boys cynicism?

    18 August 2010 at 6:51 am

    • Hello Antiphonsgarden! Thanks for the comment.

      My first thought about your comment is that I’m not exactly sure what you’re asking. “Expensive modern waste water systems” generally refer to a water-driven sewage system present in most municipalities of the developed world where potable water is used to convey everything to centralized water treatment. “Spread with the waste mud” suggests some aspect of sludge recovery that depends on direct application of the treated sludge to fields.

      The authors of Sustainable Wastewater Management tend to argue that there are many layers of wastewater treatment that span on-site, cluster, and centralized treatments, where no level is “above” another. Appropriate wastewater management must be fit to the context of the local situation. I find myself in strong agreement with the authors on contextualization of engineered solutions. I do think there are many wastewater treatments, such as the composting latrine, that allow for direct on-land crop use in an environmentally appropriate way. Yet, if we are working from a large system, I do think that subsurface irrigation using septic tank effluent can be done appropriately (if the soils are sandy enough and the water table is low enough) and that pond-based reclamation makes considerable sense for larger systems. I can see some situations where a field would make for an appropriate sand filter, but I think such a system should be integrated with other processes, such as agriculture, to be an appropriate solution.

      “Forcing every countryside household” suggests some legal and political process is present within your comment. Again, I think the authors of the book would tend towards trying to determine the existing processes of wastewater management in those households. I’m not exactly sure who you contend is doing the forcing, although generally speaking, not all engineering projects involve the hearts and minds of all affected stakeholders. Sometimes, particularly with public works, it can be important to go ahead without everyone signing on to the program; yet, sometimes systems can be implemented in a way that allows the system to grow and change along a more conventional diffusion-based paradigm as different people decide that they would like to opt-in to the technology.

      I do hope that you will consider clarifying your comment as I think you have raised several important issues.

      18 August 2010 at 10:00 am

  3. Thank you for your response.
    I will try to clarify my thoughts from a concerned aspect, not as skilled technician but informed citizen.
    As I co created the eco mouvement decades ago, I never thought it would end in a bunch of laws imposing to citizen pseudo eco “improvements” increasing gobetween structures and “green”economy,
    but would bring REAL social changes concerned with our all common resources.
    Now, I see how a countryside who gets abused in so many water affecting ways(bush&tree destruction for “bigger fields” producing chemical affected “speculation crops”, big factory animal production who don’t the animals out any more,….)gets “niced up” with “each farm, each house” her “modern waste water unit “.Strange in a countryside where the population is decreasing drastically, to consider that as a progress(strangely enough without true eco conscious behaviour change information!).
    To me this appears a misused of the eco label for some diversive actionism, avoiding pointing at the TRUE reasons of water pollutions. It is a “calming pill” to pretend “we care”, when the main abuses go on, for the Myth of a ” booming economy”.
    I hope I could share few thoughts about the difference between eco consciousness and eco profits.

    19 August 2010 at 7:02 am

    • Thanks for coming back to clarify your comment.

      I think the broader myth you bring up is the myth that industrialization is always a good thing. Surely, within the world of international development, a lot of lore exists about the insistence that “participation in the global economy” will bring “progress” where we tend to see instead environmental and social degradation. Unfortunately an assumption exists that big businesses are big business because these corporations “get it right” relative to free-market values.

      Many engineered “solutions” contain much about which to be wary. Commercial farming has left a rather horrific legacy that reflects a lot of the dominant ideas of a disconnected and disaffected society. Your comments speak to another trend in development: privatization. While in certain situations privatization can make sense, I do have to wonder about the wisdom of leaning towards industrial-level solutions. These solutions tend to be a bit myopic, particularly as they focus on one or two aspects of a very complicated space.

      Thank you for your thoughts.

      19 August 2010 at 7:26 am

  4. As long ecology get “sold” as new gimmick, and people get forces to buy it by imposed “sound good noise” laws , something that does not affect those living in a middle class lifestyle mind frame, but those who don’t(and they are many and more&more!), and who get sidelined by those “progresses”, the “environment” thought neglects the social human aspect of environment.

    We are ALL the water drops of our common future flow!

    19 August 2010 at 5:29 pm

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