Washington Post: Women, water and the ugly global crisis we’re not talking about

A story about women and girls

by April Rinne FEB 29, 2012 for the Washington Post

OPINION | Talk of the water crisis too often centers around water when it should be centered around women and girls.

In a series of posts leading up to the World Economic Forum’s launch of the Class of 2012 Young Global Leaders on Tuesday 6 March 2012, April Rinne of Water.org’s WaterCredit initiative discusses microfinance tools to address water and sanitation needs. In 2011, Rinne was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Imagine you’re a young woman in an urban slum, perhaps Nairobi or Mumbai. You spend several hours each day waiting for water to arrive on a truck. When that truck arrives, the driver charges a price that he alone sets.

You cannot control the price, how full the truck is, how many people are in line, when the truck arrives, or the quality of the water. You are unable to take on a job with fixed hours because you can’t predict these factors with regularity. To make matters worse, you never know the quality of the water coming from the truck, so you filter and treat it as best as you can, but your family often gets sick.

People whose only option is to purchase water from trucks operated by the local “water mafia” pay an average of 5-to-15 times more per liter than people with dedicated municipal connections. It is estimated, according to a 2006 World Bank report, that sub-Saharan Africa loses an estimated 5 percent of its GDP each year due to the water and sanitation crisis, a sum that can exceed all foreign assistance received in the region, according to a report by the United Nations Development Programme. Current investment falls far short of the amount estimated to be required to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) for water and sanitation globally.

Those who pay bribes to get repairs done or falsify their meter readings to lower their bills are the lucky ones, since they actually have networked water access. Many more people do not have a water connection at all, and do not have access to the capital necessary to obtain it.

But this story is about more than water supply, it’s also about sanitation.

Basic lack of toilets lies at the core of the sanitation crisis. However, culture often compounds its effects in ways that are exponentially more problematic for women and girls. For example, due to privacy and cultural concerns, women and girls who don’t have toilets are often unable to go to the bathroom during the day. To cope with this they restrict their food and water intake, which leads to serious health problems. Moreover, when they are only able to go to the bathroom before sunrise or after sunset, they are also subject to dangerous situations such as assault and injury at night.

Everyone is affected, of course. But women and girls bear the overwhelming majority — in some regions upwards of 90 percent — of the global water and sanitation burden, according to a 2010 report by the World Health Organization. They are the ones pulled and kept out of school, rendered unable to take on productive work, and trapped by the gender and financial dynamics of this crisis.

Imagine you’re that young woman again. But this time the water in your village is hygienic, accessible and usable in some way — that is until waste finds its way into the mix. Maybe a neighbor has dysentery and defecates in the pond. Maybe the primitive latrine is too close to the well.

Now, imagine you are a ten year old girl in the developing world. Your family has water access and you’re able to go to school. However, your school doesn’t have a toilet. But you love learning, and you have an abundance of ideas about what you want to achieve when you get older.

Then, just as you reach the peak of your potential, you also reach puberty. Going to school when you’ve got your period is awkward, and you don’t have any alternatives, so you stop attending those few days every month. Pretty soon, the days add up and you fall behind. So, you stop going to school altogether, and your future plans are erased simply because you don’t have a toilet — a toilet that costs, perhaps, $150 in India. In what other context could we permit such a basic solution with enormous long-term value to go unmet?

Sanitizing the problem

Fixing a sanitation problem means toilets. Pit latrines. Hygiene — washing your hands after using the bathroom, preparing food away from human or other waste. Not defecating in the open. And most of all, it means dignity.

There’s a cultural problem on the other side of the equation as well. Toilet talk usually isn’t welcome at cocktail parties. Public discussions about the effects of menstruation or diarrhea are taboo in most places. Ironically sanitation often masquerades as a “water-related” issue. However, as the Gates Foundation and others have found, the return on investment in sanitation can be incredibly high. In order to leverage this, we cannot abide by the traditionally sanitized approach to charitable giving and development aid. We must open the discourse to include terms like pour-flush, eco-san and septic tanks.

Try a new filter

When it comes to the global water crisis, we often hear the statistics. Close to one billion people lack access to safe water. More than 2.6 billion people – more than one in every three people alive – don’t have an adequate toilet, according to a 2008 report by the World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. More than 3.5 million people died in 2002 from water, sanitation and hygiene-related causes, according to a report by the World Health Organization. Water wars, impending water conflicts, water stress (not enough water in many places, too much water in others) is daily news.

In addition, water collection imposes significant time and productivity costs at the individual, household, family, community and national levels. More than 200 million hours are spent each day collecting water around the world according to data collected by Water.org. And an estimated 443 million school days are lost each year due to collecting water and being sick from water-borne disease.

It’s time talk of statistics turned into talk of solutions. This scenario can change, and there are already innovative solutions in development. Organizations like NextDrop are in the early stages of creating a mobile phone application that would provide individuals with critical data on water availability and quality. Microfinance provides another, demand-driven pathway to a solution. As the Director of WaterCredit.org, I have seen first-hand how partnerships with microfinance institutions (MFIs) can link the water, sanitation and microfinance sectors in order to catalyze sustainable and affordable solutions for clients’ water and sanitation needs.

Small amounts of finance, mobile applications, and prioritization of toilets in schools. These surprisingly simple innovations can lead to a tsunami of social change. Water and sanitation can revolutionize the future of women, girls, and, in so doing, improve the world for us all. Let’s not waste another minute, or another drop.


National Post: Caffeine helps find sewer pipe leaks

Montreal’s coffee and Red Bull habit is giving scientists a new way to look for wayward sewage, according to a new University of Montreal report.

After testing 120 brooks, collectors and outfalls in Montreal, researchers discovered that samples containing human urine and feces were also lightly caffeinated. Their conclusion: If there’s an abundance of caffeine in the water, “it means you have a leaky sewage pipe somewhere,” lead researcher Sébastien Sauvé told the Post on Monday.

Traditionally, researchers analyze sewer leakage by testing for fecal coliforms, a family of bacteria that includes E.coli. The test is unable to gauge the presence of human sewage because fecal coliforms could just as easily come from pigeons, raccoons or a nearby dairy farm. Caffeine, by contrast, is human-specific.

“Cows don’t drink coffee,” said Mr. Sauvé.

Unlike many other chemicals in human waste, caffeine is also unlikely to have bled into the water from a nearby farm or industrial facility. Montreal’s aging sewer system is apparently far from watertight. Mr. Sauvé’s team collected water samples throughout the spring and fall of 2008 — and always after a particularly heavy rain.

In every sample collected, Mr. Sauvé’s team found traces of caffeine, leading the team to conclude that Montreal’s storm drains are “widely contaminated” by leaking human sewage.

Mr. Sauvé’s team tried testing water samples for carbamazepine, a common anti-seizure drug, but the researchers could find no correlation between the drug and the presence of fecal matter.

On the other hand, any water sample “containing more than the equivalent of 10 cups of coffee diluted in an Olympic-size swimming pool is definitely contaminated with fecal [bacteria],” according to a prepared release by the university.

Luckily, with the country’s coffee and energy drink consumption on the rise, caffeine levels in Canadian urine show no sign of diminishing. Tim Hortons, which holds an estimated 80% share of the Canadian coffee market, sells more than three million cups of coffee per day.

For now, Mr. Sauvé’s caffeine test may only be regionally effective. In South America, caffeine could just as easily be leached into the water system by coffee, tea and cola plantations.

Presumably, the test could also prove ineffective in heavily Mormon communities where the drinking of coffee and tea is frowned upon.

Mr. Sauvé says the caffeine test is a valuable tool in preventing municipalities from ducking responsibility for a leaky sewerage system.

“If there’s too much caffeine in the water, there’s no way a city can say it’s because there are too many dogs,” said Mr. Sauvé.

Scientific American: How the “Internet of Things” Is Turning Cities Into Living Organisms

When city services can autonomously go online and digest information from the cloud, they can reach a level of performance never before seen.

December 6, 2011

By Christopher Mims

When city services can autonomously go online and digest information from the cloud, they can reach a level of performance never before seen. First up, water systems that automatically know when it will rain and react accordingly.

With a little help from what’s called the Internet of Things, engineers are transforming cities from passive conduits for water into dynamic systems that store and manage it like the tissues of desert animals. By using the Internet to connect real-world sensors and control mechanisms to cloud-based control systems that can pull in streams from any other data source, including weather reports, these efforts enable conservation and money-saving measures that would have been impossible without this virtual nervous system.

Marcus Quigley, principal water engineer at the infrastructure engineering firm Geosyntec, has been tackling this problem using hardware from Internet of Things company ioBridge, whose Internet-connected sensors have been used in everything from location-aware home automation to tide gauges that tweet.

It may sound like a trivial problem, but the EPA estimates that the U.S. has $13 billion invested in wastewater infrastructure alone. More importantly, the majority of America’s largest cities–more than 700 in all–dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into our waterways every time it rains, because their sewer and stormwater systems were designed a century ago.

These overwhelmed cities include New York City, Detroit, Boston, Portland, St. Louis, Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, many other cities, mostly in the Rust Belt and New England. With the notable exception of Los Angeles, almost every major urban center in the U.S. is in need of a way to soak up rainstorms rather than dump them straight down the drain in a desperate attempt to prevent flooding.

That’s where “high performance” infrastructure–infrastructure that can react to its environment like a living thing–comes in.

“The conventional way to build a city is you build what you want, and then you get rid of water as quickly as possible,” says Quigley. Historically, that’s meant massive projects to redirect all the water sluicing down impermeable streets and concrete and into the Moria-like recesses of a city’s sewer system. Green infrastructure tries to control runoff on-site, rather than sending it below, through the use of “bioretention cells” and rain gardens, which absorb and filter the water into collections of plants and artificial wetlands.

High-performance green infrastructure takes things a step further, by anticipating demand for water storage and preparing a system accordingly. For example, in seven projects deployed in St. Louis and one in New Bern, North Carolina, Geosyntec integrated a building’s rainwater catchment system with software that uses weather predictions from the Internet to know when a basin should be partly emptied to accommodate incoming stormwater.

Many more projects of this kind are on the way, including installations in Washington, D.C. and New York City.

“Instead of trying to use what I consider sub-optimal passive systems to control these … components of the urban environment, what we’re doing is making decisions in real time to achieve specific environmental goals,” says Quigley.

Dynamic control of a rainwater catchment allows these basins to be used to their maximum without fear that they’ll be overwhelmed by weather events. Giving building planners the assurance that they’ll always have access to a free water supply means they can actually use it. And putting these on enough buildings could go a long way to solving the problem of combined sewer and stormwater systems being overwhelmed when it rains.

It’s early days for these kinds of systems, and managing runoff is just one of the applications they could be put to use.

“The big picture is that we are able to take any piece of information that is Internet-accessible, any feed, and integrate it into the logic of how we operate these components of our city,” says Quigley.

Geosyntec’s cloud-based infrastructure is just as important as the physical infrastructure it puts into place on-site. Led by software developer Alex Bedig, the company has created a general-purpose platform for handling all the relevant inputs, sending instructions to valves and other control points, and never, ever failing in an emergency.

Taken together, these physical and virtual systems are explicitly biomimetic, says Quigley.

“The intent of an active system is to take the built environment and have it perform as if it were natural. We’re fundamentally saying that passive systems are unable to do that in an optimal way. In many cases they are unable to do it at all.”

It’s a story we’ve heard in the energy industry for years–hence the notion that a dynamically managed “smart grid” is not only helpful, but absolutely essential for integrating our power-generating infrastructure with the natural world through renewables. The smart grid extends all the way down to the level of the individual through demand management for energy conservation, but these principles have yet to show up on the same scale in the management of physical resources like water.

Humanity has a sorry habit of neglecting its waste stream, whether its the 99% of precious rare earth elements we fail to recycle or the complete absence of curbside composting from most American cities. The handy thing about water is that, through evaporation, it recycles itself. Now all we have to do is make the best use of it we can while it’s coursing through our cities.

via: Fast Company


Publications and Projects by Geosyntec:

EPA announces schedule to develop standards for wastewater produced by natural gas and coalbed methane extraction

Via: Environmental Expert

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is announcing a schedule to develop standards for wastewater discharges produced by natural gas extraction from underground coalbed and shale formations. No comprehensive set of national standards exists at this time for the disposal of wastewater discharged from natural gas extraction activities, and over the coming months EPA will begin the process of developing a proposed standard with the input of stakeholders – including industry and public health groups. Today’s announcement is in line with the priorities identified in the president’s Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, and is consistent with the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board recommendations on steps to support the safe development of natural gas resources.

‘The president has made clear that natural gas has a central role to play in our energy economy. That is why we are taking steps — in coordination with our federal partners and informed by the input of industry experts, states and public health organizations — to make sure the needs of our energy future are met safely and responsibly,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. ‘We can protect the health of American families and communities at the same time we ensure access to all of the important resources that make up our energy economy. The American people expect and deserve nothing less.’

Recent technology and operational improvements in extracting natural gas resources, particularly shale gas, have increased gas drilling activities across the country. Production from shale formations has grown from a negligible amount just a few years ago to almost 15 percent of total U.S. natural gas production and this share is expected to triple in the coming decades. The sharp rise in domestic production has improved U.S. energy security and created jobs, and as with any resource the administration is committed to ensuring that we continue to leverage these resources safely and responsibly, including understanding any potential impact on water resources.

Shale Gas Standards:
Currently, wastewater associated with shale gas extraction is prohibited from being directly discharged to waterways and other waters of the U.S. While some of the wastewater from shale gas extraction is reused or re-injected, a significant amount still requires disposal. As a result, some shale gas wastewater is transported to treatment plants, many of which are not properly equipped to treat this type of wastewater. EPA will consider standards based on demonstrated, economically achievable technologies, for shale gas wastewater that must be met before going to a treatment facility.

Coalbed Methane Standards:
Wastewater associated with coalbed methane extraction is not currently subject to national standards for being directly discharged into waterways and for pre-treatment standards. Its regulation is left to individual states. For coalbed methane, EPA will be considering uniform national standards based on economically achievable technologies.

Information reviewed by EPA, including state supplied wastewater sampling data, have documented elevated levels of pollutants entering surface waters as a result of inadequate treatment at facilities. To ensure that these wastewaters receive proper treatment and can be properly handled by treatment plants, EPA will gather data, consult with stakeholders, including ongoing consultation with industry, and solicit public comment on a proposed rule for coalbed methane in 2013 and a proposed rule for shale gas in 2014.

The schedule for coalbed methane is shorter because EPA has already gathered extensive data and information in this area, EPA will take the additional time to gather comparable data on shale gas. In particular, EPA will be looking at the potential for cost-effective steps for pretreatment of this wastewater based on practices and technologies that are already available and being deployed or tested by industry to reduce pollutants in these discharges.

This announcement is part of the effluent guidelines program, which sets national standards for industrial wastewater discharges based on best available technologies that are economically achievable. EPA is required to publish a biennial outline of all industrial wastewater discharge rulemakings underway. EPA has issued national technology-based regulations for 57 industries since 1972. These regulations have prevented the discharge of more than 1.2 billion pounds of toxic pollutants each year into US waters.

More information: http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/lawsguidance/cwa/304m/

Aquatic Informatics Inc. launches AQUARIUS system

THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO — (Marketwire) — 09/16/11 — Aquatic Informatics Inc., a global leader in providing innovative software solutions for water data management and analysis, announced the successful implementation and launch of the AQUARIUS system today at the Water Survey of Canada‘s Thunder Bay office in Ontario, Canada. After a thorough testing period, Thunder Bay is the first of the organization’s 28 offices to switch its complete real-time operations to the AQUARIUS system.
The deployment of AQUARIUS will increase the agency’s efficiency in acquiring, processing, and publishing hydrometric data from its entire national monitoring network. The innovative AQUARIUS system will also provide business productivity tools for Water Survey’s hydrologists and field technicians allowing them to work with larger volumes of data with greater ease.

‘Capabilities such as workflow automation and quick and easy access to a new centralized data storage center are but two of the new benefits that the AQUARIUS system brings to Canada’s largest water agency,’ states Edward Quilty, Founder and CEO of Aquatic Informatics.
Aquatic Informatics’ Australian partner, Greenspan, developed the environmental telemetry solution EnviroSCADA. The large-scale deployment of the AQUARIUS system is integrated with their automated data acquisition system for over 2400 of Water Survey’s continuous water monitoring stations across Canada.

Mark Wolf, Principal Consultant of Greenspan, added that ‘our EnviroSCADA framework leverages the unmatched power, flexibility, and robustness of ClearSCADA, one of the most widely used Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems in the world.’ The data that is collected by EnviroSCADA is then made available through AQUARIUS to over 200 Water Survey technicians and scientists in real-time across Canada.

The Regina Water Survey office will be the next in line to roll out AQUARIUS where its real-time data analysis solutions will be put to through the rigors during the next flood season. From there AQUARIUS will be rolled out to the remaining offices throughout the remainder of 2011.

About Aquatic Informatics Inc.
Aquatic Informatics provides software solutions that address critical water data management and analysis challenges for the rapidly growing environmental monitoring industry. Aquatic Informatics is focused on providing solutions to a range of different customer groups including federal, state/provincial or local government departments, hydropower operators, mining companies, academic groups and consulting organizations, who collect, manage and process large volumes of water quality or quantity data. For more information about Aquatic Informatics, go to http://www.aquaticinformatics.com.

Aquatic Informatics Inc.
Susan Kirk
Marketing Communications