Wednesday 21 May 2008

Sanitation Challenge

The international conference ‘Sanitation Challenge: New Sanitation Concepts and Models of Governance’ took place in Wageningen, The Netherlands, during 19−21 May.

Monday 19 May
The opening plenary session included a presentation by Dr Ir Grietje Zeeman of Wageningen University on “New Sanitation: a challenge for developing and developed countries”. Rather alarming really, as it started off as follows:

New Sanitation, EcoSan, ROSa (Resource-oriented sanitation), DeSaR (Decentralized sanitation and reuse), all these terms are used to define the collection, transport and treatment of source-separated domestic waste(water) ...

Apparently, source separation is “unavoidable for a sustainable [sanitation] solution”. OK, so more EcoSan ‘gospel’, but is it really necessary to keep repeating this incomplete view of sanitation, especially sanitation for the 2.6 billion poor people in developing countries who currently lack access to ‘improved’ sanitation? Actually it gives such a distorted view of the sanitation possibilities for this huge number of poor people that, with luck, it’ll be self-defeating − well, one can but hope! At least Dr. Zeeman realised that vacuum sewerage might not be appropriate in developing countries, and she did recommend SPARC-style community-managed sanitation blocks in high-density slums, so perhaps not all is lost.

After the coffee break I went to Theme 4: Sanitation Concepts and Knowledge Gaps − no choice as this session included my presentation. The three other presentations in this session were so high-tech that none could make any contribution whatsoever to the achievement of the MDG sanitation target – rather strange really. This was true of many of the presentations in the afternoon too.

Tuesday 20 May
Prof-Dr Ralf Otterpohl of the Technische Universität Hamburg-Harburg (TUHH) gave one of the plenary presentations on “Pathways for future developments in sanitation”, all rather high-tech (and therefore presumably expensive) EcoSan – but he did say that EcoSan systems were “not ready for large scale” application at present, except in rural areas. This was a really important admission by one of Europe’s leading EcoSan researchers and advocates that urban/periurban EcoSan is not yet a feasible sanitation solution. So now we know!

In the afternoon there was a good paper by Rose Osinde of UN-Habitat on sanitation governance – a hugely important topic which hitherto hasn’t really received the attention it deserves, so it’ll be a subject this blog will return to. Later on in the afternoon there was a very interesting paper by Maggie Montgomery of Yale University on her doctoral research on rural sanitation in Tanzania. She proposed Three Pillars of Sustainability for rural sanitation: a demand-responsive approach, microfinance and cost recovery, and effective operation and maintenance. Throughout the conference there has been a good discussion on what we actually mean by ‘sustainable sanitation’ – we didn't come up with an agreed definition, but it’s clear that source separation is not the sine qua non for this.

There were a few papers on sanitation planning, really sanitation system selection, using tools such as ‘flow stream approach’, multidimensional gap analysis, multi-criteria analysis, and learning and decision methodology. Some of these are, or at least appear to be, quite complex, so it was good to hear that these researchers will collaborate to develop a more unified and hopefully simpler approach.

Wednesday 21 May
Field visits today to EcoSan projects in The Netherlands. Given what Ralf Otterpohl said yesterday, I’ve decided to give them a miss!