World Toilet Day 2021: An interview with Olufunke Cofie

Leadership and governance systems must provide an enabling environment for the scaling of improved sanitation.

Borteyman Workers checking sludge on drying bed Fortifer plant at our Fortifer Plant in Accra, Ghana. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI
Borteyman Workers checking sludge on drying bed Fortifer plant at our Fortifer Plant in Accra, Ghana. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

Every November 19, we celebrate the considerable progress made in tackling the global sanitation crisiswhile acknowledging the enormous distance that remains before universal access to sanitation becomes realityThis World Toilet Day, IWMI sanitation expert Olufunke Cofie talks about the importance of improved sanitationprovides insights on the connections between climate change and sanitationhighlights some promising new sanitation innovations, and shares her optimism about the future. 

The theme of World Toilet Day 2021 is ‘Valuing Toilets’. In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges communities face as a result of inadequate sanitation services and infrastructure?

Olufunke Cofie: Most health challenges come from poor sanitation. Diarrhea, and diseases like cholera, dysentery – they are a result of poor sanitation. If we can improve sanitation and remedy hygiene challenges, then certainly we will see positive health outcomes.

Improving quality of water is also paramount – if people have improved sanitation but no water, then there is an issue.

In your experience, what are some of the ways sanitation is connected to climate change, and vice versa?

OC: The core thing is always water. Water is at the very center of climate change. Climate change is water change. And water is, of course, very much related to sanitation.

The key challenge is the scarcity of water, as sanitation practices are limited. How do we wash our hands, or clean feces without water? We must consider mitigation and adaptation when it comes not only to climate change, but also to water treatment.

In the developed world, huge wastewater treatment plants require a lot of energy, and if we’re trying to conserve then we look at alternatives. We need to come up with sanitation practices that are less dependent on water – for example dry sanitation, or toilets that use minimal water.

Why does climate change exacerbate pressures around sanitation?

OC: In water-scarce areas, more people move to cities. They move to access urban facilities, including water, health, and social services. More people in the cities in turn puts greater pressure on available urban services, including sanitation facilities.

What solutions can we introduce to improve the situation?

OC: There are diverse solutions along the sanitation chain, from collection to transporting it to treatment plants, and subsequently treating it. Water is involved in all this, and as mentioned earlier, it is important to minimize the amount of water we are using. Dry toilets, improved pit latrines, and allowing composting on-site – these are ways to reduce the amount of water we need to use when managing waste.

Other things we can rethink include reusing grey water for sanitation purposes, such as using grey water for flushing to conserve the quality water for bathing and drinking. We can also compost, combust and incinerate (or char) waste – this can make it usable as fertilizer or converted into energy, into biogas.

Speaking of innovative sanitation practices and solutions, what can you tell us about Fortifer?

OC: Made through processing of human and organic solid waste, the product is a safe, nutrient-rich compost which the plant will sell in powder and pellet forms. This product kills two birds with one stone: It is a material we need for enhancing the soil organic matter for crop production, but also helps to manage waste output which would otherwise cause environmental pollution.

How are you feeling about the future?
OC: The world is going in a positive, though slow, direction regarding sanitation. My concern is not about sanitation, but about leadership and governance systems that must provide an enabling environment for the scaling of improved sanitation.

However, we need to stay optimistic. There are plenty of global drivers, including SDGs, the annual climate change COP, commitments, actions, and adaptions. We are increasingly growing more aware of the environment, and seeing young people talk about climate issues.

But it is leadership that must follow and change for there to be results.

To learn more about Olufunke Cofie’s research, click here.

To learn more about the reuse of wastewater as a resource for agriculture, click here.

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