Keeping it Clean

By John Gagnon

David Watkins says an Upper Michigan deer camp and a small village in Africa have something in common: the need for rudimentary sanitation in the form of an outhouse or latrine.

Further, Watkins says, that basic technology is appropriate for the circumstance. It is inexpensive; it doesn't rely on scarce water resources; and it can be easier on the environment.

"We don't have to look at sewers and flush toilets as the world standard," he says. "In rural areas, latrines are the way to go."

Watkins, an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering; Lauren Fry, a PhD student in environmental engineering; and former Tech professor Jim Mihelcic, now of the University of South Florida; made that assessment after they conducted an intensive data analysis that hinges on the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals.

Two goals are to reduce by one-half the number of people who don't have clean water or adequate sanitation—both by 2015.

Watkins says that 900 million people in the world lack sufficient clean water; 2 billion lack adequate sanitation.

Providing both resources is part of the UN's goal of eradicating poverty. Overall, achieving the clean-water goal is on schedule, while the sanitation goal is not.

The three scientists strived to determine the reasons for the lag in sanitation development by analyzing social and economic factors, that are believed to affect the delivery of sanitation in underdeveloped countries.

They found several measures that relate to the problem: corruption in government, a country's gross domestic product, and the level of foreign investment.

Another key is gender equality. "The more that women are involved in community decision making, the better the chance of a successful sanitation project," Watkins says. "Women deal with bad water and sick children on a daily basis. When you talk with them about that, women get it and are very interested in seeing sanitation facilities."

Watkins says sanitation also suffers from an image problem. "You bring water to someone's home, and they turn on a tap and they see clean, running water—that's a project you can feel proud about. Nobody feels as proud of a latrine, digging a pit. It's not very glamorous."

Fry, who wants "to do something that has a positive impact on the world," asks, "Why isn't the world concerned about sanitation? Is it that they don't care? Is it that they don't have enough water resources? Is it financing? Is it a lack of public will? That's why we're looking at social and economic values related to providing sanitation coverage in underdeveloped countries."

Delivering that sanitation is a thorny problem. While latrines might be the answer in rural areas, they aren't adequate for urban areas, where there is simply no room. So a more traditional approach—toilets and flushing waste away with water—is more desirable.

But, typically, the effluent from this technology goes straight into lakes and streams without being treated, causing disease and environmental degradation.

As well, the system often consumes an already insufficient water supply. Even septic systems come up short, with no sanitary disposal of the waste.

"It's a very bad situation," Fry says. "We need sanitation technology that either reduces the amount of water use or allows for its reuse."

Fry brings hands-on experience to her inquiry. She participated in Tech's Peace Corps Master's International program, serving two years in Cameroon,

where she worked on providing and protecting clean water, as well as building latrines in small villages. She also is working on a clean-water project in Bolivia.

Fry, Watkins, and Mihelcic stayed close to home for their data collection and analysis, poring over publicly available data country by country. They were intrigued by the trends they saw in the data. Now they want to study the matter on a smaller geographic scale, as well as focus on urban slums. "We've barely scratched the surface," Watkins says.

The overall goal, he adds, "is to help guide policy" on the part of governments and donor organizations.

Watkins says that there can be some simple solutions to this complex problem. "As engineers, we like to build stuff," he says. "But washing hands is really important, too."

In typical engineering language, he calls the entire scenario "a triangle of linkages—sanitation, clean water, and good hygiene are all needed to improve health."

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.