Professor Chris Buckley, Head of UKZN’s Pollution
Research Group.

Combining water, energy and food thinking will address some of the shortcomings of the eight single issue millennium development goals set in 2000 for realisation by 2015, says Professor Chris Buckley, Head of UKZN’s Pollution Research Group.

Delivering the second of a Public Lecture series celebrating National Science Week at UKZN, Buckley said the nexus between food, water and energy was a hot topic for policy makers around the world.

‘Integration needs to be emphasised.  One needs to think globally, and act locally.’

Buckley, who is a sanitation expert, outlined the three basic principles of sanitation – public health is the objective; a sanitation system needs to be in harmony with water supply, and all water should be adsorbed on-site unless formal sewers are provided.

‘The problem with conventional sewage treatment is that it uses energy,’ he said. ‘And it wastes water – 18 000 litres are used to flush away 610 kg of excreta.

‘Current global trends are urbanisation, population growth and climate change.  Available water resources are needed for water supply security, food security, and energy security. The interlinking of them all is what we need to consider when we are making our choices.’

Buckley provided some sobering statistics.  In 2004, about 3.6 billion people or 42 percent of the world’s population lacked adequate sanitation; only 330 million people (ie 5 percent) had advanced sewage treatment; malnutrition accounted for 14 percent of the global burden of disease and sanitation-related diseases some 3.4 percent; and 32 percent of Africa’s population was without reasonable access to improved water sources while about 60 percent were without sanitation.

‘One of the reasons developed countries find it so difficult to change their sanitation is that they have invested so heavily in financial resources and infrastructure,’ said Buckley.  ‘But sitting in Africa, in a situation where there is no infrastructure, we have an opportunity to do things differently.’

Buckley described the headway Durban’s eThekwini Municipality was making with the provision of sanitation services to its 3.6 million population.  While central Durban had a developed sanitation infrastructure, the periphery of the unicity was a far more rural environment.  Moreover, he said, Durban was the municipality with the greatest number of informal settlements where there were no formal sanitation facilities in 203 222 households and 21 469 traditional rural households. 

‘To provide sanitation in the conventional way to Inanda, for example, would be very expensive,’ Buckley said.  In addition, we are in a very tight water situation as water demand in the Mgeni system exceeds supply.  ‘We need to provide a sanitation solution.  The challenge is how to provide sanitation services to rural and informal settlement environments.’

Buckley went on to explain the urine diversion toilet, which is being rolled out by the municipality.  With the traditional ventilated improved pit latrines (VIP toilet), the pits can get full and unhygienic.  ‘In the urine diversion toilet design, faeces and urine are separated; whilst the faeces dries, the urine soaks away and there is very little possibility of contamination. It is dry, and it doesn’t require water,’ said Buckley.   About 80 000 urine diversion toilets had been installed by the eThekwini Municipality to date. 

Buckley cautioned, however, that the urine diversion toilet was only suitable for family use not large community use.  ‘Water borne sanitation has a place in large informal communities,’ he said.  As an interim service, the municipality was providing communal ablution blocks.

Buckley said UKZN researchers from a multiplicity of disciplines were looking at productive ways of using sanitation residuals, at the Newlands-Mashu DEWATS technical evaluation plant.  ‘Engineers, microbiologists, soil scientists, crop scientists and community health practitioners are  all working together, looking at better ways of using sanitation waste, better ways of using less water, and re-using water  to produce food.

‘Water is life. Sanitation is dignity.’