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World Toilet Day 2017: Replicating nature to manage wastewater in urban informal settlements

19 November 2017

More than 40% of the world’s population lacks access to a safe and reliable water source, according to the United Nations Development Program, and that figure is projected to rise over coming decades. Over 80% of the world’s wastewater resulting from human activity is discharged into the environment without treatment, and 1.8 billion people only have contaminated water for drinking. As a result, almost 1,000 children die each day from preventable diarrhoeal disease.

Mainstream approaches to improving water, sanitation, and hygiene have had strong success, but there is still much to be done, especially given challenges like climate change and the needs of dense urban communities experiencing rapid growth. Additional approaches are needed to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: clean water and sanitation for all.

To help efforts, an interdisciplinary, global team of researchers is channelling its efforts into the Revitalising Informal Settlements and their Environments (RISE) program. RISE will provide unprecedented insight into a sustainable approach to water management that aims to improve the health and well-being of over a billion people in urban informal settlements.

Embracing a connected cycle of all available water sources in a local area, the water sensitive cities approach integrates “nature-based solutions” – like artificial wetlands with “smart” new septic tanks – into urban buildings and landscapes.

By applying a suite of solutions chosen to suit each individual location, RISE aims to enable 24 informal settlements in Fiji and Indonesia to independently harvest their own rainwater and stormwater, recycle wastewater, and protect against flooding and pollution. Those outcomes will mean more secure water supplies, and a cleaner environment where wastewater is handled safely.

Kerrie Burge from the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities is part of the RISE team. She explained how the water sensitive approach is particularly effective in wastewater management.

“Strategies like biofiltration gardens or constructed wetlands use nature itself – vegetation, soil and organisms – to remove pollutants from wastewater. The treated water can then be safely reused to support domestic and economic activities, like flushing toilets or growing flower crops for sale,” said Ms Burge.

“Access to clean water and sanitation is a human right and essential to the fulfilment of all other rights. Developing nations must be enabled to leapfrog the mistakes made by other countries. Our global ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals is much stronger with innovative, interdisciplinary approaches with sound practical applications, and collaboration across countries and institutions.”

Working alongside communities, local leaders, and governments in Fiji and Indonesia, RISE aims to deliver the first-ever rigorous evidence that a localised, water sensitive approach to upgrading informal settlements can deliver sustainable, cost-effective improvements in both human and environmental health.