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Improve human waste management in African countries for better health, environment and economy

  • Improve human waste management in African countries for better health, environment and economy

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The leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system.

Poor sanitation continues to pose major health, environmental and socioeconomic risks in many African countries, according to new research by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The paper highlights ways to improve management, generate industry from human waste, and improve sanitation for cities and households with poor fecal sludge management.

The research paper, Fecal sludge management in Africa: Socio-economic aspects, human and environmental health implications, was launched on occasion of World Toilet Day, which celebrates toilets and raises awareness of the 4.2 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation. It explores current trends in fecal sludge management and how they are impacting human and environmental health in the region, and provides guidance on enhancing wastewater management and sanitation services delivery across the continent.

Poor fecal sludge management is a major contributor to the 115 deaths per hour from excreta-related diseases in Africa, while improved sanitation has been shown to decrease diarrheal disease by 25 per cent. It also contributes to huge economic losses: on the continent, poor sanitation leads to losses of approximately 1 to 2.5 percent of a country’s GDP. As population growth skyrockets – the continent’s urban population is projected to triple by mid-century – so too does the volume of fecal sludge and wastewater. Across West African cities, one person produces between 20-150 litres of wastewater per day. Considering an average daily generation of 1 litre of fecal sludge per person, a city of 1 million inhabitants will need to collect 1000 m3 every day.

The analysis finds that sustainably managing fecal sludge is hindered by a number of factors

“The scale and threat of poor fecal sludge management can be turned on its head if we look at the government and business opportunities that can galvanise real change in health and livelihoods in marginalized communities in countries struggling with poor sanitation,” said Dr. Habib El-Habr, Coordinator of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities (GPA) at UNEP. “COVID-19 shines a harsh light on the state of proper sanitation in many African countries, for whom improved sanitation should be a key part of green recovery and efforts to prevent excreta-related diseases.”

The report recommends technical innovations for improving the capture, emptying and treatment of sludge, highlighting good practices, including a programme in Uganda, through which the Kampala City Council Authority worked with the private sector to improve fecal sludge management in the city. The programme included a sanitation call centre to strengthen the link between customers, the City Council and private operators, and a GPS tracking system to improve service efficiency and avoid illegal dumping by for private operators.

Treatment plans can generate some revenue for countries and especially for poor communities, converting fecal sludge to compost or biochar for use as fertilizer, or converting to briquettes as fuel for industry. In 2017, Burkina Faso commissioned the first fecal sludge biogas plant in the country, generating electricity to feed into the national grid.

Dr Olufunke Cofie, Principal Researcher and Country Representative for IWMI in West Africa: “We are reaching a crucial point in managing fecal sludge on the African continent: there are feasible and affordable opportunities to further invest in inclusive fecal sludge management, from feces capture to treatment and the report explores how transforming poop to useful products could help ease the crisis, as we are demonstrating in Ghana.”

The analysis finds that sustainably managing fecal sludge is hindered by a number of factors, including population growth and urbanization; over-reliance on financial aid for construction of treatment plants; low revenue generation from users of treatment facilities; poor operation and maintenance, and inefficient institutional arrangements for fecal sludge management.

The authors call for better coordination of the roles and responsibilities of diverse actors involved in the processes.

The report’s authors stress the need to invest in sanitation systems and mechanisms to improve fecal sludge management, as well as direct investments – especially to poor households – in order to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.

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