Why Sanitation is a #1 Development Priority


Hi. I’m Yasmin, Code Innovation’s Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal. Having lived in a small rural village for two years before I moved to Dakar, I’ve experienced firsthand the public health issues that accompany not having proper latrine facilities or sewage disposal. Toilets in the developing world are often just a cement slab covering a large hole in the ground, and have no drainage, which means that systems often overflow into the surrounding area. Sewage can leak into the drinking water supply and into water sources that are used to irrigate gardens, which in turn can contaminate vegetables that come into contact with the soil.

DFID - UK Department for International Development via Compfight cc

Direct or indirect consumption of sewage-contaminated water spreads disease, with epidemics of gastrointestinal illness affecting many people at the same time. Frequent sickness contributes to morbidity – often measured in lost productivity at work or school – or even death, from cholera and other life-threatening gastrointestinal illnesses.

I’ve seen “quick fix” solutions to sanitation issues, like constructing new latrines or teaching people the importance of hand washing, try to solve the problem. While these are important contributions in their own right, the problem of untreated sewage contaminating gardens and a communal water supply still exists and still exposes the population to the same life-threatening diseases.

But what if we could take a previously dangerous public health concern and transform it into a resource for the community? What if we looked at raw untreated sewage as a “wasted” resource (excuse the pun) that could become a valuable agricultural and energy input?

In the Sindh region of southern Pakistan, generations of collecting firewood have left once-forested land bare. Land used for agriculture is poor, drinking water is scarce, and the entire area is prone to heavy flooding during the rainy season. Wastewater treatment innovations have the potential to harness what is commonly viewed as a major problem—untreated sewage and wastewater—and to transform it into something valuable and good.

Imagine low-cost innovations that would solve the triumvirate of contaminated water, low-cost fuel and poor quality agricultural land?

Potential low-cost solutions that are appropriate in the rural Pakistan context include:

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  • Constructed wetlands,
  • Biogas digesters, and
  • Composting toilets.

Jean-Luc Toilet via Compfight cc

Constructed Wetlands

Constructed wetlands act as a secondary treatment for raw sewage after it has been collected in a septic tank. The sewage is filtered slowly through flooded basins planted with aquatic plants, such as reeds, broad-leaved cattail and water hyacinth. Wetlands filter disease-causing bacteria because the movement of water causes suspended sediment to drop to the floor of the wetland, and these dissolved nutrients are absorbed by plant roots and microorganisms in the soil. After filtration, the resulting nutrient-rich water is excellent for agricultural irrigation.

Throughout Southeast Asia, household, institutional, and municipal wetland systems have been implemented to treat wastewater in urban areas for safe discharge and reuse. In Uganda, research has shown certain types of constructed wetlands to be suitable treatment options for rural areas.

The Institut Agronomique et Véterinaire Hassan II (IAV) in Rabat, Morocco has established a pilot wetland project to test the use of constructed wetlands in arid climates as a solution to sewage water contaminating water used for irrigation. The system of two wetlands and an unplanted filter filled with sand has been found to reduce pathogens and organic materials to levels acceptable for discharge and irrigation.

Sustainable sanitation via Compfight cc

Biogas digesters

Biogas digesters are a low-cost communal solution for areas where energy is expensive and traditional fuel sources such as firewood are scarce due to overharvesting. Biogas digesters convert waste into renewable energy by breaking down human waste, animal manure and agricultural and kitchen waste in sealed underground pits to create two valuable products. Biogas or methane, which can be used as cooking gas or heating, is produced when bacteria anaerobically digest waste and convert it into gas. The solid waste left behind makes a potent agricultural fertilizer.

In India, BIOTECH, sells household, institutional, and municipal biogas digesters. Digesters convert toilet and kitchen waste into energy. At the household level, where biogas is used for cooking, it replaces about 50% of petroleum gas used. In larger systems, biogas can even be converted into electricity for lighting.

Stand-alone toilet systems, such as the Loowatt, offer a simple digester technology. The Loowatt contains human waste in a mechanical sealing unit, which can be adapted to any toilet using locally available materials. Human waste is then transferred to an outdoor biogas digester, which converts waste into usable energy. This project is current being tested at a public toilet in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

In other countries, such as Nepal, biogas technology has been combined with constructed wetland technology to create community wastewater treatment systems. In the community of Sano Khokana, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal the grey and black wastewater and kitchen waste of all 37 households is digested in the biogas plant and excess wastewater is filtered through a constructed wetland. The combined system produces biogas for five households, nutrient-rich irrigation water, and treated solids which can be dried and used as fertilizer.

 le Korrigan via Compfight cc

Composting Toilets

Composting toilets offer an opportunity to directly

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convert toilet waste into compost, a nutrient rich soil-like amendment.

Feces and other organic material such as sawdust or soil are collected in a chamber until full and, over six months, decomposed into “humanure,” a nutrient rich and disease-free fertilizer.

Composting toilets are being successfully used in Africa, both at the household level and as a part profit-making schemes at the local level. In Burkina Faso, waste (both urine and feces) is collected, treated, and then sold to urban farmers as a cost-effective alternative to chemical fertilizers.

In Kenyan slums, the Fresh Life toilet system operates like a franchise, where local citizens buy public toilet systems and make a profit by charging users. A local waste management staff collects and treats waste to be sold back to the urban farming community as

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Of course, for sanitation innovations to be useful, they must be owned, managed and maintained by the community they serve. Before such innovations are even piloted, it is important to work closely with community-level stakeholders to ensure that there is a clear and communicated need for the low-cost technology, and that there are

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designated stakeholders who will manage and maintain the resource.

Low-tech innovations, when appropriate and community-managed, can transform a dangerous public health exposure into a substance that enriches agriculture and supports the economic development of the community.

For more information about Code’s work with low-cost ecological technologies, email

3 Steps to Surviving Slow Internet


dolapo via Compfight cc When I first became a professional writer, I lived thirty kilometers outside Arusha, in northern Tanzania.

I had a DSL dial-up Internet connection at the time and the number would constantly drop because I was too far in the bush. Regular outages made responding to deadlines and time-sensitive emails so stressful that I contracted a local ISP to build me my own Internet tower in the back garden.

Yes, you read that correctly. I built my own Internet tower -- and then I sold my neighbors bandwidth on my tower, like a true African entrepreneur. What can I say? It was a big tower.

After almost five years of working location independently, I've come to value speedy Internet as more important to my quality of life than regular electricity and running water.

I can handle long power outages, no hot water, no running water, spiders, less-than-optimal squat toilets, and long bus rides.

Give me Internet fast enough to stream the Pipeline Masters Surf Contest, do my tech4dev work online, and talk to my mum and dad face-to-face on Skype, and I'm a happy woman.

I bring this up because, having returned to Senegal from a few weeks of travel, I arrived back at the home office to find the quality of our Internet greatly compromised.

Emails and exchanges with my Dakar-based colleagues went something like this, (and I quote anonymously), " Internet is sooo slow, though, it's ridiculous, … it felt like I spent most of the day waiting for pages to load."

I became so impatient at the slow connection (Skype would not even acknowledge I was online!) that I lost my temper, threw the toys out of my pram and threatened to leave the country. Yes, how embarrassing. When I calmed down, I decided on a better solution.

I'm not yet convinced that the worldwide web is a human right, but it's certainly up there on my quality of life priorities.

So, in the interest of your own health and happiness, here's what I've learned about how to optimize and thrive with really slow Internet. Here you have it:

3 Steps to Survive Slow Internet

1. Define Your Limit

Very simply, how slow is slow? Do you need to torrent two movies a day, stream music and keep your files on the Cloud? Or are you happy with fast Gmail and less-than-5-minute downloads from iTunes? Even if you're just Skyping with your mum, where do you draw the line?

I know I need to take action to improve my slow Internet when:

  • I find myself multitasking because the page I'm working on won't load.
  • I find myself staring at a screen that has trouble loading email.
  • My voice Skype calls are inaudible.

That's where I draw the line. Your line is up to you.

2. Research the Market

This turns out to be crucial, since the Internet you want is often elusive and requires you to understand basic concepts about mobile technology in developing countries.

Quite simply, it's on the way up. A lot.

So, there are basically two reasons behind Internet suddenly getting slow:

1. Physical interferences like storms, floods, earthquakes, bad wires, bad signal, and so on.

2. Rapid scale-up by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that means that more people are trying to get a piece of a limited amount of bandwidth available from a tower.

Now that most ISPs are also Mobile Network Operators, and that smart phones are replacing laptops as our preferred way to get online, you see the infrastructure challenge signaled by your bandwidth grinding to a halt.

I have recently come to accept that having a part-time assistant is a fantastic lifestyle hack for expats living in developing countries. I've had a local personal assistant since 2009, and it has given me up to 30% more free time and freedom from monotonous and time-consuming errands.

You can do this market research yourself or (and this would be my choice) have your assistant do it for you. Either way, you want to know:

  • The top five ISPs, and the type of Internet connections they offer. Prioritize USB key connections, as these are mobile and much cheaper than fixed routers -- they're also easier to bring into the office to fix.
  • How much their biggest, fastest, most unlimited Internet package is per month. Ideally, your ISP will offer you a VIP package that gets you additional bandwidth at a fixed monthly rate. If there are tiers of service offered, learn about them and pick what's right for you.
  • What kind of customer support do these ISPs offer? Is there a helpline? Often there will be a phone number to call, but no one will answer. Test the customer support out to see how helpful and proactive they are at problem-solving. I like to select ISPs who have a cheerful staff focused on solving my problems. Ideally, this is easy to find.

3. Cover Your Bases

At this point, go out and purchase the hardware that the top two or three ISPs offer and that meets your needs. You want options here. You want to be able to switch between different networks operated by the ISPs whenever one gets too slow.

A word of warning: now that Huawei seems to make most USB Internet keys, the software that will operate one network's key will likely interfere with your Internet alternative until you uninstall the old ISP's program.

In other words, if I'm using a Vodafone USB key for an MTN USB key, I'll probably have to uninstall the Vodafone Internet software before the MTN USB key will work on my computer.

Another thing: If you have a Mac (and in that case, you probably know this already), you might need to physically take your computer to the ISP to get them to install the software that allows your USB key to connect to the Internet. I've not yet found a way around this, but I'm trying.

One thing that can help as you're covering your bases is to cultivate a personal contact at your preferred ISP. You want to be able to pick up the phone and call someone when $20 of credit disappears off of your account and have someone tell you "problem solved." This might take time, but it's worth it.

There you have it: the "3 Steps to Surviving Slow Internet."

Use them to optimize your time online so you can get things done faster and use that extra time to relax and enjoy.

May you never have to suffer slow connection speed again.

Got a secret quick-fix to improve your Internet connection? Let us know in the comments!