It is difficult to believe that in the United States, one of the world’s richest countries, there are still an estimated 508,997 homes that do not have plumbing facilities. Rural areas in America are among the most negatively affected by inadequate plumbing and wastewater treatment systems. In Lowndes County, Alabama, for example, some households are forced to use septic systems because connecting to conventional wastewater networks is too costly.
In soil that percolates easily, these traditional septic systems do not pose a problem. But Lowndes County’s soil does not fit the bill and requires special septic systems that cost anywhere between $6,000 and $30,000. In a county where the annual median income is about $26,000, the cost of installation could eat up at least 23% of a household’s annual income.
Since many residents cannot afford these costs, they use septic systems that are inappropriate for the soil conditions. Because the wastewater is not easily absorbed into the soil, septic tanks overflow and sewage pools in homeowners’ backyards.
Given these circumstances, creative solutions to wastewater treatment are in order. Pakistan may serve as a model, in this regard.
Residents of Orangi, an informal settlement in the Pakistani city of Karachi, have long suffered from their own wastewater infrastructure problems. In Orangi, households were not connected to wastewater treatment systems. In response to this problem, residents partnered with the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) and the Pakistani government, to connect their houses to the city’s wastewater network.
Since it was established in 1980, the Orangi Pilot Project has connected about 108,000 households to Pakistan’s wastewater network. The program provides design advice and technical support, while residents finance and manage construction projects and the government lays the main sewer lines and treats wastewater. This component-sharing model provides Orangi’s residents with access to low-cost improved sanitation, while decreasing the financial burden on the government.
The OPP’s partnership approach can serve as a model for places like Lowndes County. In the United States, installing septic systems is the homeowner’s responsibility, so government probably will not have a role to play in the partnership model. But, academic institutions, rife with skilled students and instructors, can provide the technical expertise required to design appropriate and affordable wastewater treatment systems. Residents of rural communities would then take responsibility for installing and maintaining the treatment systems. Like the OPP, the system’s designers can provide technical support during installation.
Creating such a partnership will require connecting academic institutions with beneficiaries. Since civil society in the United States is active and vibrant, it can capitalize on existing networks and pair households with appropriate partners to design and install low-cost wastewater treatment systems.