Oslo: The history of men is reflected in the history of sewers,” French 19th century author Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables. “The sewer is the conscience of the city... A sewer is a cynic. It tells everything.”
Judged by its sewers, the world is not doing well. Only three in 10 people now have a connection to a public sewerage system.
Toxic flow: A man stands on sacks of recyclable waste in the Nairobi river. UN says about 90% of the sewage and 70% of the industrial waste in developing countries are being discharged untreated into water courses.
And with the world’s population expanding, a goal of improving sanitation by 2015 is slipping out of reach, despite progress in nations such as China and a few big contracts for firms such as Veolia or Suez to build waste treatment plants in cities from La Paz to Rabat.
Experts say a part of the solution, especially to cut water-borne diseases for the rural poor, may lie in renewed and smarter exploitation of nature—for example, through plants or soil bacteria that feed on waste.
Novel schemes include a plan to build an artificial wetland at a jail in Mombasa, Kenya, to process sewage from 4,000 inmates that now flows untreated into a creek, or ponds in South Africa where algae purify waste and are then used as fertilizer.
“About 90% of the sewage and 70% of the industrial waste in developing countries are being discharged untreated into water courses,” said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
“Understanding the ability of peatlands, of marshes, of wetlands, to play an integral part in filtering...waste water is often overlooked,” he said.
The UN set a millennium goal of halving the proportion of people with no access to sanitation—even simple latrines rather than sewers—by 2015 from 40% of humanity or 2.6 billion people now: “Africa is probably struggling the most,” Steiner said.
A 2007 scorecard showed the sanitation goal was likely to be missed by 600 million people worldwide on current trends. 2008 is the UN’s International Year of Sanitation.
France’s Veolia, the world’s biggest listed water supplier, says East Asia and the Pacific are progressing best. In Africa, the company’s only big contract so far is to supply water and sanitation to three cities in Morocco, with investments totalling €2.2 billion (Rs14,190 crore).
“A lot of countries underestimate the effect of sanitation on health,” said Pierre Victoria, head of international institutional relations at Veolia Water.
UN data show a child dies as a result of poor sanitation every 20 seconds—that is 1.5 million preventable deaths a year from diseases such as diarrhoea or cholera.
In many countries “we are disappointed by the lack of interest of the politicians about water issues,” Victoria said. “We’d like to have new contracts in developing countries but we need contractual, legal and financial security.”
Proper sewers, with pipelines and treatment plants, are prohibitively costly for many nations. As a sign of low ambitions, the logo of the International Year of Sanitation shows a latrine built above a hole in the ground. Among lower-cost projects, prisoners at the Shimo La Tawa jail in Mombasa, Kenya, will soon start work on an artificial wetland where plants will act as a sewage processing plant in an experimental $117,000 (about Rs48 lakh) scheme.
“This technology costs very little both for construction and maintenance,” said Peter Scheren, manager of joint UNEP-Global Environment Facility projects in Africa.
The scheme will also include a fish farm—fed by waste water purified by two artificial wetlands each 55m long, 9m wide and 2m deep. If it works, the fish can be eaten by prisoners, or even sold. Such wetlands can have other spinoffs. “There are experiments going on in Tanzania where types of grass for roof thatching and basket weaving are grown on wetlands,” he said.
Many scientists say natural systems, such as wetlands, forests or mangroves, are worth more left alone rather than cleared for farmland because they supply free services such as food, water purification or building materials. “For sanitation it’s much better to get nature on your side,” said Dag Hessen, a biology professor at Oslo University.
UNEP’s Steiner also said the world urgently needs a better understanding of the natural water cycle, under threat from climate change stoked by human use of fossil fuels, to help manage water from rains to drains. Global warming may aggravate water shortages for hundreds of millions of people, for instance by disrupting Africa’s monsoons or by thawing Himalayan glaciers whose seasonal meltwater now feeds crops from China to India.
UN estimates show it would cost only about $10 billion a year to reach the 2015 sanitation target. And every dollar spent on sanitation creates spinoffs worth $7 on average, largely because of less disease.
A 2006 UN Human Development Report said rich donor nations gave about 5% of total overseas aid, or between $3 billion and $4 billion a year, to water and sanitation. Excluding big investments in Iraq, the recent trend was down. Many donors view water investments as too risky, partly because of problems of accountable financing, it said, adding that sanitation progress since the 1970s had been “glacial”.
Yet many firms stand to benefit from a focus on water and sanitation.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. sees prospects for growth in the water sector—from drinking water to processing waste.
In rich nations such as the US, upgrading water and waste-water infrastructure should bring 4-5% growth and in markets such as China, new infrastructure should mean 10-15% growth over five to 10 years, it said in a December 2007 report.
“Longer term, we expect the global water sector to surge towards a global water oligopoly, where the market for water equipment and services will be dominated by a few multi-industry companies, including General Electric, ITT Industries, Danaher and Siemens,” it said. Suez says it has had successes in cities such as Buenos Aires, Casablanca, Jakarta, and La Paz. In the 13 years to 2006, it estimates it has helped connect 5.3 million people to a sanitation network.
One headache is how to pass on the cost of upgrades.
“New systems are often under-funded. So the connections go often to the rich or medium-income households and the poor do not get it,” said Helen Mountford, head of the Environmental Outlooks division at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
With the world’s population growing, any advances in improving sanitation may be only helping the world stand still.
OECD said this month that more than five billion people—or 67% of the world’s population—are expected to be without a connection to public sewerage in 2030.
That is up by 1.1 billion from 2000, when 71% of a smaller world population had no connection. About 1.1 billion people lack drinking water—another millennium goal is to halve that proportion by 2015.
“Investments in sanitation if anything have to be more urgent than for water because the deficit is double,” said Angel Gurria, secretary general of OECD.