By Victoria Blymier, Princeton in Asia Fellow, IWMI
When you flush your toilet, do you ever wonder what happens to your waste? Dr. Solomie Gebrezgabher, IWMI Senior Researcher, will tell you that human excrement can be transformed into something valuable. This World Toilet Day, we spoke with Dr. Gebrezgabher to learn about IWMI’s work in the “circular economy,” its relation to groundwater and sanitation, and how repurposing waste is empowering refugee women and children in East Africa.
Could you describe what you investigate and where you work?
My work focuses on the circular economy, which is embedded in IWMI’s Water, Growth and Inclusion strategic program. But specifically, I work on how to address problems arising from urbanization and how the circular economy can contribute to nature positive solutions.
Urbanization comes with increased production and consumption levels and carries implications for the huge amount of waste that cities produce. We don’t have good waste treatment facilities or management systems, so feces and other waste streams usually end up in the open and pollute the environment, posing human health risks.
My research is centered in a niche where we are developing innovative circular economy solutions to promote nature positive solutions as well as address some of the challenges due to urbanization and lack of robust waste management. While I am primarily based in Ghana, West Africa, I contribute to projects in East Africa, Asia and Latin America.
In your current Towards Brown Gold project, you describe poo as “brown gold.” How can fecal sludge be transformed into resources with economic value?
There are many resources we can recover from fecal sludge, depending on the local context and available resources. We can take fecal sludge and turn it into biogas for household energy. Also, on-site septic tanks can be emptied and transported to facilities where fecal sludge is treated and made into nutrient-rich compost for agriculture.
This year’s World Toilet Day theme is “sanitation and groundwater.” How does repurposing feces in the “circular economy” serve to benefit public sanitation and groundwater resources?
Sanitation and groundwater are very interlinked. Millions of people don’t have access to safe sanitation systems, and as a result, some resort to open defecation. Open defecation negatively affects groundwater resources; the fecal sludge makes its way into streams and groundwater reservoirs, contaminating drinking water. This leads to diarrhea and other fecal-borne diseases.
In a circular economy, there is no waste: everything has value. When we recover feces and repurpose it, we not only turn it into a valuable resource, but we remove feces from our water system, which in turn reduces groundwater contamination and protects public health.
On November 18-19th, a team of IWMI researchers will be showcasing our work around circular economy and nature-positive-solutions at the 2022 World Toilet Summit in Nigeria. Interested participants can register online.
Can wastewater be safely recycled for agricultural irrigation and food consumption?
It depends on the local context. Because farmers commonly use wastewater for irrigation despite the health risks, IWMI’s research provides low-cost food safety training along the “farm to fork” value chain. We acknowledge that some farmers depend on wastewater irrigation for their livelihoods, but we also emphasize the importance of preventing contamination from entering the food chain.
Our approach is to spread awareness about the safety measures that should be implemented at each stage of the production chain according to WHO guidelines. Farmers are encouraged to cultivate crops that will be cooked before eating . Street vendors receive training on safety measures and the same for consumers.
What positive impact has your work had on women and girls in African refugee settlements?
This project is close to my heart. Its potential impacts are immense. IWMI’s objective is to promote circular economy solutions for resilient refugee and host communities.
In refugee camps, one key challenge is competition for resources. Refugees––80% of who are women and children–– depend on firewood for cooking. Women travel long distances to collect wood and are at risk of gender-based violence during their commute. Refugees also face food insecurity. They rely on cereal staples which take a long time to cook.
IWMI and its implementing partners help by training refugees in how to produce their own energy and food through growing home gardens and making fuel briquettes. Instead of dumping greywater outside, IWMI advises refugees to collect greywater and use it to grow home gardens. We train and encourage refugees to grow nutritious vegetables such as okra, which is healthy for children and pregnant women, and requires less time (and therefore fuel) to cook. Women learn how to make fuel briquettes from waste, which can be used for cooking or sold to generate supplemental income.
In Kenya and Uganda, approximately 1,600 women-led refugee households are trained in how to produce fuel briquettes and grow kitchen gardens.
Why is it important that the international community continues to recognize World Toilet Day?
The importance of safely managed sanitation cannot be overemphasized: millions of people still do not have access to safe toilets. We must spread greater awareness about this issue. Donors, governments, and financers should include sanitation in their key development agenda. Although sanitation is widely recognized as important, it remains underfunded.
How can we mobilize to achieve SDG 6.2, ensuring everyone has access to “adequate and equitable sanitation” and a safe toilet, in time by 2030?
Sanitation has been seen as a public sector responsibility––but the public sector is limited in finances. Therefore, it is important that other actors within the private sector get involved so that we can develop innovative business models.
Why not have sanitation businesses? By creating value from waste, we can derive opportunities along the sanitation value chain.
This isn’t just a responsibility of the public sector: private actors, financial institutions, and startups need to step in, and we’ve seen this be successful in countries that are lagging in sanitation. Through creating business models, diverse sanitation businesses, and a circular economy along the value chain, we can make progress towards achieving SDG 6.2.