Most of us living in a wealthy country don't often think about clean water or sanitation. We turn on the faucet and flush our toilets without considering how the water got there or where our waste goes. But it wasn't always this way. Providing easy access to clean water and effective sanitation was and is a conscious policy choice.
For the millions without readily available clean water, and the billions without basic sanitation, these remain two of the most basic and important issues of environmental sustainability, social and gender justice, and human development.
In creating access to basic sanitation, as well as making existing sanitation systems more ecologically sustainable, it may seem like we are just improving the health or hygiene of people, or the aesthetics of a place. But what we are doing also addresses the entire spectrum of human development, human potential, and the relation of humanity to the world. We are helping enable growth of the individual, the community of humanity, as well as the community of all life.
The Millennium Development Goals recognize the interconnection of these issues. Goal number seven aims to provide more access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. The number of people who have clean water has increased substantially, but the results have not been so good for improved sanitation. There are still 2.5 billion people—over half of whom live in China and India—who remain without what we in wealthy nations take for granted.
The United Nations lays out the importance of meeting this goal simply, "Cross-country studies show that the method of disposing of excreta is one of the strongest determinants of child survival: the transition from unimproved to improved sanitation reduces overall child mortality by about a third. Improved sanitation also brings advantages for public health, livelihoods, and dignity advantages that extend beyond households to entire communities."
UNICEF expands on this, adding, "Inadequate access to safe water and sanitation services, kills and sickens thousands of children every day, and leads to impoverishment and diminished opportunities for thousands more. Children, and particularly girls, are denied their right to education because their schools lack private and decent sanitation facilities. Women are forced to spend large parts of their day fetching water. Poor farmers and wage earners are less productive due to illness, health systems are overwhelmed and national economies suffer."
In short, UNICEF concludes, sustainable development is impossible without first addressing access to clean water and basic sanitation.
The technology employed in the Omega Center for Sustainable Living is one example of how to process wastewater in a more sustainable way. The Eco Machine™, designed by John Todd Ecological Design, and successfully used in projects around the world in both urban, suburban, and rural settings, treats polluted water by mimicking natural processes.
According to Todd, "Within the Eco-Machine, all the major groups of life are represented, including microscopic algae, fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and zooplankton, on upward to snails, clams, and fishes. Higher plants, including shrubs and trees, are grown on adjustable strength fiberglass racks suspended within the system. The result is an efficient and refined wastewater treatment system that is capable of achieving high quality water without the need for hazardous chemicals."
Even conventional wastewater treatment facilities can incorporate ecological components. In Wakodahatchee Wetlands in south Florida, the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department constructed a wetland that handles the final stages of wastewater treatment and provides a home to more than 140 species of birds, alligators, frogs, and other reptiles. The area is now also a popular destination for birdwatchers.
In places where conventional sewer systems don't already exist, ecological toilets can eal with human waste in ways that are far more simple and don’t require building expensive infrastructure.
Ecological toilets help prevent pollution by turning what's usually seen as a waste product into a valuable resource—an important consideration in holistic thinking and regenerative design. Such toilets use a small fraction of the water used in ordinary toilets—in some, the only water used at all is for cleaning yourself. Surprisingly, using water for post-poop cleaning rather than paper is itself a net water savings, because of the large amount of water needed to produce toilet paper.
When looking for sanitation solutions—keeping in mind there is not a single solution equally applicable in every situation—we have a great opportunity to build systems that not only benefit the people who will directly use them, but also build water supply, sanitation, and water treatment and reclamation systems that benefit the environment as well. Working with and learning from nature is the key to solving existing problems and preventing future ones.
© 2013 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies