In humanitarian action and WASH practices, faecal sludge treatment cannot be bypassed at the risk of polluting the soil and spreading disease. In Myanmar, the NGO Solidarités International set up a sludge treatment plant in 2014. However, due to lack of access to an analytical laboratory, as is often the case in emergency situations, they had no way of measuring the effectiveness of the treatment other than on a periodic and partial basis, without a real historical database. Was the process effective? What was the reduction rate of the pathogenic concentration between the time the sludge arrived and the end of the process? These are the questions that were answered by the installation of an analysis laboratory in the field, thanks to the work of the Veolia Foundation and Solidarités International.
“For the first time, we have a system that allows us to quantify the effectiveness of our treatments. And it has become clear that they are very effective! “Aude Lazzarini, head of the WASH division of Solidarités International.
Settling in Myanmar, a response to huge needs.
In 2012, Solidarités International, with funding from the Myanmar Humanitarian Fund (a pooled fund managed by OCHA) initially, and then from HARP supported by DFID, began implementing a faecal sludge management project near Sittwe (see map) as part of the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State. At that time, the aim was to manage the faecal sludge of 80,500 people. Solidarités International has decided to address them using some of the principles and technologies of DEWATS (Decentralised Wastewater Treatments) systems, designed by the NGO BORDA (Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association) and usually used in development contexts. A centralized processing system, called the Sludge Treatment System (STS), was then created. In 2018, the number of beneficiaries reached 97 000 people living in 14 camps and using 4 000 latrines. The sewage sludge treated every day is now 38 m3 with significant variations between 18 and 56 m3.
Poor treatment of this sludge can lead to groundwater contamination and the spread of disease in the vicinity of the discharge area. It then became necessary to set up a real monitoring system adapted to local infrastructures and staff skills: a field analysis laboratory.
This project was made possible thanks to the support of the Veoliaforce of the Veolia Foundation. In Rakhine State, Veolia experts helped model the laboratory, provided and transported appropriate equipment and trained the NGO’s national staff in analytical techniques.
How does the analytical laboratory work, and what are its objectives?
From the latrines, faecal sludge is put into barrels and then brought by tractors to the centre. The analysis laboratory was installed in a division of the treatment centre (STS), located away from the camps. There, Solidarités International’s sanitation practitioners carry out tests to measure the effectiveness of the treatment and to know if, for example, the level of nitrates and other dangerous agents has decreased.
Thanks to the first data collected by the laboratory, it was possible to create a model to monitor the performance of the treatment. The results also provided essential recommendations for improving the infrastructure and increasing the efficiency of the STS Centre.
A laboratory designed for the field.
Monitoring the effectiveness of the treatment has a direct impact on field operations. It is indeed possible to redirect activities according to the diagnosis provided by the laboratory. This can even lead to the resizing of infrastructures and operational modules, depending on the resources available on site.
In contexts where resources are limited – electricity is provided by generators, and practitioners do not necessarily have scientific training – it was necessary to create a tool efficient and easy to use.
Currently, the transportability of the device remains complex. Some chemicals are difficult to transport by air. However, most of the equipment and analytical devices are easily exportable or available on the local market. Solidarités International plans to replicate this type of laboratory in the medium term, developing it in several emergency humanitarian intervention sites where sludge treatment plants are being set up.
Towards an ecological recycling of sludge for agricultural purposes.
The laboratory is currently exclusively focused on monitoring field action. However, practitioners are increasingly concerned about the reuse of wastewater and dry sludge resulting from the treatment process.
In the long term, the objective is to obtain such an efficient treatment that would allow the outputs to be reused for agricultural purposes. Sludge could thus be used as compost to fertilize the soil and liquid effluent to irrigate the plots.
Sludge management: a lack of humanitarian standards?
“This type of analytical laboratory should be systematically implemented in the field” Alberto Acquistapace, WASH referent of Solidarités International.
From the design phase onwards, a laboratory would provide greater visibility on the effectiveness of the actions carried out. However, regularly, the budgets allocated by donors are directed towards access to drinking water or the construction of latrines, and very little towards the treatment of faecal sludge. In general, there is a lack of clear standards for sludge management in the water, hygiene and sanitation sector. For example, the treatment objectives are only rarely addressed in the humanitarian standards of the Sphere movement, the Standard Sphere. This innovation opens up several questions:
What should be the objectives of sludge treatment processes in humanitarian contexts? Should we propose discharge standards for faecal sludge? How to facilitate the consideration of sludge treatment in the first emergency phase? Is it possible to scale up the Sittwe Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant?
“Currently, we have indicators for sludge management, but we lack standards to compare and adapt our action. We need global humanitarian standards on sludge treatment.” Alberto Acquistapace, WASH referent of Solidarités International
Solidarités International has created OCTOPUS, a first collaborative platform to harmonize and exchange on sludge management practices (see the article on this subject). It is time for cooperation between WASH actors to collect the information needed to establish global humanitarian standards for sludge treatment to be put in place!
Sarah Boisson, editor for Défis Humanitaires
Alberto Acquistapace, WASH referent of Solidarités International
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