Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Fecal Sludge Makes a Splash at World Water Week

September 13, 2013

Last week I attended World Water Week in Stockholm—my first big water and sanitation conference since joining the foundation a few months ago. With about 2,500 participants and 200 organizations from more than 130 countries, this was a tremendous opportunity to introduce myself to the WSH community and meet some of the thought leaders in the sector.

It was great to get updates from some of the foundation’s early WSH grantees, like the IRC’s (the International Water and Sanitation Centre) WASH Cost calculator project which uses the “life cycle cost approach” to help organizations figure out the true costs of a sanitation project. It was also good to get acquainted with some of the funders and implementers whom we haven’t yet had the chance to partner with and learn about their innovative work.

As you might expect, the problem of open defecation received a lot of attention at the conference. Given the detrimental health, environmental, and social impacts of open defecation, along with the growing body of evidence that it is a major factor in physical and cognitive stunting in children, this is an issue that demands a greater response.

But I was also quite encouraged by the increased attention given to the problem of fecal sludge management in urban and peri-urban settings. More and more, the WSH community is recognizing that it’s not enough to get people to use toilets. We also need to have reliable systems in place to safely deal with human waste.

When urban households use pit latrines and septic tanks, that’s progress. But when the waste and its pathogens are simply dumped into a field, drain, ditch, or body of water, that’s a threat to the environment and the health of the entire community. The bottom line is that the lack of fecal sludge management is the urban equivalent to open defecation in rural areas.

The foundation is actively working with our partners to develop new technologies and innovative options that make pit emptying and the transportation of fecal sludge safer, cheaper, and more sanitary, thus making it more likely for proper waste treatment to happen.

We’re particularly excited about our new partnership with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which we announced at World Water Week, to expand non-sewered sanitation and fecal sludge management solutions across Asia. The foundation is investing $15 million in the Sanitation Financing Partnership Trust Fund, which will also leverage at least $28 million in funding from ADB.

This is a major development when you consider that the overwhelming majority of public funding goes toward sewer systems, which tend to serve a minority of the population. For example: ADB’s annual investment in non-networked sanitation was less than 0.2 percent of its average annual water and sanitation lending over the past seven years. Clearly, this partnership indicates ADB’s interest in expanding its presence in this critical space and the need to identify, test, and pilot innovative non-networked sanitation and septage management projects.

I look forward to learning about the exciting solutions that this partnership will yield over time and sharing them with the WSH community. Spending time at World Water Week convinced me that there are tremendous opportunities to work with a dynamic group of people and organizations that are eager to address the sector’s most challenging problems. 

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