A team of scientists at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Thailand are set to reinvent the toilet in three developing countries in Asia.
In a bid to find sustainable solutions to the current sanitation problems faced by the urban poor – not just in Thailand, but also in Cambodia and Vietnam – the researchers have embarked on a five-year project made possible by a US $5-million (150-million Baht) grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the United States.
AIT was one of 61 grant recipients from the Gates Foundation's Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene Team in 2011. The Environmental Engineering and Management field of study at AIT's School of Environment, Resources and Development is the new project holder for the field research project on "Sustainable Decentralized Wastewater Management Systems" lasting from 2012.
Of the 2.5 billion people without access to sanitation, 75% live in the Asia and Pacific region. In many developing countries, sanitation coverage depends on homeowners investing in toilets with onsite storage systems for human excreta, in the form of a pit or septic tank.
"Having toilets and onsite storage systems are not enough to make sanitation safe and sustainable. All too frequently, onsite storage systems malfunction due to a lack of information on the lifespan, poor operation and maintenance such as desludging," says project leader Dr. Thammarat Koottatep, Associate Professor at the Asian Institute of Technology. It is not uncommon for untreated effluent and the emptied sludge from onsite storage systems, so-called Fecal Sludge, to be discharged into nearby rivers or the neighborhood.
Dr. Thammarat believes the key to providing extensive sanitation coverage is to focus on reinventing innovative, decentralized systems. Decentralized systems provide the advantage of flexibility, in that different treatment technologies can be combined to meet the required goals of treating human excreta and wastewater from homes and businesses. In addition, decentralized systems have the advantage of saving homeowners the cost of connecting to a sewer, and eliminate the environmental burden of transporting large quantities of wastewater to the treatment plant.
The project – officially titled Sustainable Decentralized Wastewater Management in Developing Countries. Design, Operation and Monitoring – uses a "Market-driven Approach" to ensure the innovative decentralized systems are saleable and affordable to the urban poor.
The 5-year project will be carried out in three phases: Phase I) creating a platform for innovation; Phase II) designing and developing lead options for commercialization; and Phase III) catalyzing commercialization of lead options.
Of the 20 million cubic meters of domestic wastewater produced per day in Thailand, only 1.6 million cubic meters are collected in sewer networks and sent to treatment plants, many of which do not function. The figures for fecal sludge are equally alarming: in Thailand, 60,000 tons of fecal sludge is collected per day, but only 4,500 tons per day (i.e., less than 10%) are treated correctly. This project aims to double the amount of correctly treated fecal sludge, with innovative business models.
The overarching aim of this research is to reinvent decentralized systems and technologies for treatment and safe disposal of human excreta and wastewater from dwellings and businesses close to their sources. The ultimate goal of the project is to catalyze the commercialization of novel, superior decentralized wastewater treatment systems aimed at radically improving sanitation for the poor, particularly in urban areas.
Dr. Thammarat says a market-led approach focused on the needs of potential customers and users will frame technology development and innovation so as to generate bona fide marketplace demand. Products derived from the project will include treatment technologies that are applicable in developing countries and are based on sound scientific, technical and market evidence.
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