Water is a gift

Sorry for posting yet another video (pole to those who aren’t on broadband), but we just got this forwarded from a colleague at work and I think it’s a nice video to share – especially since I really dig the Arabic…

[youtube btWcXNSvOHw]
“Awareness video on water scarcity with nice animations and effects produced for Yemen and the National Water Resources Authority NWRA..”

Do we need a similar version on water conservation in Kenya? Hmm. Maybe for the protection of surface water and groundwater tables in urban areas…

Today is World Toilet Day

…and I will update this entry once I’ve figured out what to write for my new side project:

http://saniblog.org – the world’s first blog on sanitation!

Karibuni! :-)

Update: Hello World! …seriously, there’s nothing much to add. I really hope to move any future content on sanitation on this external blog and will also try to attract other authors on that site. You know, I am also active on a mailing list which deals with ecological sanitation – and many of the participants are scientist. Which is why most conversations are only related to scientific matters. Interesting, yes, but still a closed group. Who would want to talk about sanitation all day long? People talk about IT on lists like Skunkworks KE, because computers are interesting. And this although they are somewhat expensive and often just a beautiful waste of time :-). And sanitation? Everyone has to go to toilet – but just so few talk about >toilets< in general. Did you know there are over 950 results when you do a Flickr groups search on “toilet”?

So, obviously, there’s a place for this – and the internet being an ideal place for conversations, why not lifting this stigmatized niche to a better platform through the use of modern conversation tools such as blogs? Sanitation to me isn’t only about providing basic toilet facilities to some developing countries (sic!), but a matter that everyone will pay attention to on an almost daily basis. Flush toilets, based on water to flush away (transport) the faeces & urine into a sewage system, aren’t that ideal.

my favourite machine on the plant: a grinder pump that chops up all bigger pieces like Q-Tips, tampons, condom, hair and other stuff ppl keep on disposing through the toilet system. I used to clean this on a daily basis… (i was told the second day that gloves are available :-)

I’ve worked on a sewage treatment plant, put my hands where others wouldn’t even want to enter the room and quickly realized that this basic issue of proper sanitation does not necessarily depend on the smartest technical solution used (there’s no “one-fits-all”-solution), but instead only depends on what people want to use when relieving themselves. Sanitation is dignity. Not a slogan, but reality.

If saniblog.org helps to elevate the matter of sanitation from a closed group of scientists and their cryptic conversations onto a normal level where this matter could raise more attention – heyyyy – that would be awesome!

Markets are conversations. And sanitation is a huuuuuuge market!

Sustainable Sanitation Alliance & Akvo & Web2forDev

I’ll be in Stockholm over the weekend to attend the 3rd meeting of the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (@ Stockholm Environment Institute, SEI). Plans actually included to attend the upcoming World Water Week in Stockholm and, more importantly, having a few interesting conversations during those evening sessions, but…[still searching for an excuse to explain why my Boss wants me to be back in the office by monday – although she’s the one staying in Stockholm for the rest of the week…argh…now let’s see how good Ryanair actually is – just rescheduled my return flight to Aug 13th.. :-)].

Nways. If you’re interested in water and sanitation issues – and I hope you are, as we’ll have the International Year of Sanitation declared by the UN for 2008 – pls have a look at akvo.org, their blog and akvopedia. The latter being an OPEN wiki for the international water community. Thomas and his team are already working hard to present AKVO to the international community on the World Water Week, they are looking for some further funding of the project and hoping to raise some awareness for such an internet platform on water and sanitation issues (the website shall, at a later stage, also include a microcredit part we’ve already seen with kiva.org). Oh, and btw: akvo is the Esperanto word for “Water”.*

If they succeed in convincing some donors, such a website *could* become the leading resource for anything related to water and sanitation online. It could, as content contribution depends on everyone, and coming up with such a great website also means convincing many other stakeholders who still do not see the internet in a way we see it (~ as a huge resource of interesting information that should be made accessible, editable and exportable to a world wide audience 24/7/365). In other words: future generations, I believe, are already used to browsing the internet and filtering it for genuine information that is of use.
Hence there’s no need for further publications in paper format if instead we can come up with an interactive communication platform such as a single website where content is pulled together from different resources. This kind of knowledge management is also the same spirit that Chris and his team are trying to implement in the development sector and are hoping to promote through the upcoming Web2forDev conference in Rome, Italy, later on in September this year.

You see, until now, many aid / dev organisations just tossed out their knowledge onto the internet and thereby indirectly asked their readers to search for the required information on their own. In our case of ecological sanitation, a lady from India recently told me that it took her 5 months to find all the necessary information online which helped her starting her own project on building ecological latrines at a local school. Obviously, we can do better than that.

Back in 2005, when Erik and I joked about the Gadgetimoja term I often use on my blog, Erik suggested that we should come up with a website dedicated to African ingenuity. And he did. Within a short time, he had the blog up and running, and our dedicated team behind Afrigadget started contributing stories. Interested readers would send in their stories on toys, resourceful hardware modifications and thereby showing to the world wide audience that Africa isn’t just a dark continent, but instead a place where people started doing their own little projects (or as Prof Ayittey would correctly argue: loooong time before the colonialists came). After the website got boingboinged a few times, ppl started realizing that interesting stories do not only emerge from high-tech laboratories in SE Asia and the US.

Of course, the sceptics will argue that the internet isn’t everything and that you won’t be able to feed a hungry child or solve real world problems by IT only. However, I think and really believe that all these approaches on spreading knowledge on available technologies may in the end contribute to the bigger picture – which isn’t just an idealistic, often too altruistic approach on changing the world, but instead coming up with an organized internet resource which would pull in different feeds on a similar topic from various physical locations. Think of David Weinberger’s tagclouds, think of the Cluetrain communication approach, think of social bookmarking ? la delicious, the wide-spread use of Wiki’s to organize knowledge and events (!), internet publishing technologies that enable 13year old kids to come up with their own, user-generated content (~blogs, youtube, etc.) and you’ll get the idea.

Who knows – maybe one day we won’t see Google? providing us with “search results” only, but instead a complete page that will have pulled-in feeds from quality (!) resources (rated by their users) and give us a quick overview on a qualified repository of knowledge that is available online. At least, I wouldn’t want to search the net for 5 months only to find a good solution to a technical issue.

And you?

(* = someone from the akvo team told me they actually tried to secure a Kiswahili domain in the first place…huuu….which goes to show that my strategy from way back 1998 when I registered uhuru.de, umoja.de & co actually wasn’t that stupid :-)

sanitation wars

One of the most tiring aspects within the field of sanitation are endless debates about the sustainability of sanitation.

On one hand there are those who are interested in conventional waste water treatment, and who are making a living out of investing into, optimizing or selling waste water treatment plants. Take Germany, for instance. The sewage system is well approved, a very high percentage of houses is connected to centralized waste water treatment plants and these things just work. The aim of such systems is to reduce the organic content of waste water which then allows the “cleaned” water to be discharged into the next river.

And then there’s something commonly referred to as sustainable sanitation.

Sustainability. What does sustainability mean?

Obviously, sustainability at first sight is just another keyword such as capacity development or knowledge management. Ask your neighbours how they’d define the meaning of sustainability, and I am sure you’ll get many different answers.

According to the “Network for the development of Sustainable approaches for large scale implementation of Sanitation in Africa” (NETSSAF), sustainable sanitation refers to sanitation systems that protect and promote human health, do not contribute to environmental degradation or depletion of the resource base, are technically and institutionally appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable, being the issue of reuse and recycling an optional feature.

“The issue of reuse and recycling” is often termed as something we call ecological (and economical) sanitation (ecosan). I am currently active in the field of ecosan, and it seems that I have to constantly explain the meaning of ecosan, and why I think this approach makes sense – despite of the many unsatisfactory issues that still come along with most ecosan concepts.

The ecosan concept is mainly based on the following principles:

  • Prevent diseases (must be capable of destroying or isolating faecal pathogens)
  • Protect the environment (must prevent pollution and conserve valuable water resources)
  • Return nutrients (must return plant nutrients to the soil)
  • Culturally acceptable (must be aesthetically inoffensive and consistent with cultural and social values)
  • Reliable (must be easy to construct and robust enough to be easily maintained in a local context)
  • Convenient (must meet the needs of all household members considering gender, age and social status)
  • Affordable (must be affordable and accessible)

Having mentioned this theoretical background, let’s look at the practical side of it, and why I felt a need to blog about this issue in the first place:

Kibera, this huge informal settlement in Nairobi is Kenya’s and even Africa’s biggest “slum”. Many of my readers know about Kibera, and many also know that there have been numerous projects in the past, trying to “promote” the living standards of people in Kibera. One of those standards actually is access to proper sanitation.

There are a few “normal” toilets latrines in Kibera that have been installed in the past, but many of them are too costly for daily use and still the number of available toilets latrines? is hilarious compared to the actual need. How many people live in Kibera? Too many!
Also, Kibera faces various problems such as a high crime rate, unstable ground which complicates the construction of proper buildings and a very unusable topography. In short: Kibera is a way too crowded piece of land with a very bad starting position.

People who live from hand-to-mouth all their life and are trying to survive each day, don’t think about sustainability issues. What they want are working toilets that don’t overflow during the rainy seasons, clean, free of charge and maybe also secure to use during night time.

If you’re into this sanitation business, there apparently is no time for endless debates on sustainable approaches to sanitation. Something needs to be done, and as the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) predict, change has to happen – soon.

So there you are, trying to figure out the best sanitational concept for an informal settlement such as Kibera. A sustainable concept that is accepted by it’s users, reliable, convenient and affordable. This process actually is quite difficult, as most of these sustainable concepts require a certain level of ownership among its users, and, most importantly, some time and enough space to develope. Remember: Kibera is a crowded area. Just think of the Biogas latrine in Kibera we recently mentioned over at Afrigadget – I was told that the digestion tanks are too small, so the digested biomass comes out half “raw” – and is just disposed of into the next river. Obviously, while energy is generated out of the biomass, there’s still no good concept behind this installation that provides a closing of nutrient loops.

Nutrients, yes, as the human excreta contain nutrients which could be used as a fertilizer on the shamba. Just think of cow dung, and you get the point. Obviously, reusing these nutrients has to be put on the sanitation agenda as there’s no such thing as “waste”.

For those big players in the industry though, the conventional waste water treatment business where dirty water is cleaned and nutrients effectively eliminated is more interesting than relatively simple technologies such as the ecosan approach.

On one hand, there’s the (sometimes justified) critisicm towards ecosan and that it works best in theory, and on the other hand, a relatively low cost technology such as a Urine Divertion Dehydration Toilet (UDDT) – with already over one million installations in China! – simply doesn’t generate any benefit for industrialized nations. ==> How does Europe profit from disseminating low-tech, low-cost toilets to Africa? How do the various engineering companies benefit from this technology if instead they are interested in selling conventional, cost-intensive, high-tech systems that also require lots of maintenance (= revenue)?

Whenever I open the various professional journals that deal with sanitation issues, I so often only come across these high-tech systems that basically only deal with the issue of treating “dirty” water (blackwater, greywater, yellowwater) as “waste” where nutrients have to be cleaned out. And yet at the same time, these very same people talk about sustainability, and how they can optimize their systems towards more sustainability.

Well, for a green approach to sanitation that actively tries to close loops (= keeping nutrients in a biological and technical loop), a paradigm shift is actually needed. And so you can well imagine that there’s an endless debate on the definition of what ecosan actually stands for and what it brings to the people. Users, who are supposed to accept and use such systems, have to get an understanding of why such low-tech toilets are actually better than conventional flush toilets, and companies who have previously made a profit by selling high-tech machines have to understand that even in Germany, where most waste water treatment plants actually work in a very stable mode and are constantly optimized, the future is set towards sustainable sanitation. To my understanding, the production of waste water on normal (“modern”) flush toilets is far far away from any sustainability. Sure, it is an improvement to simple pit latrines, but in countries where the majority of the population doesn’t have access to any proper sanitation facilities, it makes sense (to me) to invest into good systems that provide a benefit to its users and the environment in the long run.

The Chinese understood this concept some years ago (heck, even 2.000 years ago) and consequently promoted this technology so as to keep some nutrients in a loop and water consumption for sanitation on a low level. China is a good example that this technology actually works, and so we must never forget that most “wars” on sanitation issues aren’t based on ideological reasons, but instead perilled business opportunities.

I sometimes wish more and more companies would wake up and see this as a new business opportunity. Public toilets, based on sustainable principles – that’s such a huge market ready to be skimmed.

(oh, and btw: what’s the difference between a toilet and a latrine? and for which countries does this definition apply?)


A workshop.

A workshop on the formulation of a Catchment Management Strategy for the Water Resources Management Authority which shall be gazetted in ~May 2007.

The second workshop on this matter I’ve been attending, and this time it included some brainstorming on the sub-catchment management strategy. A workshop with lots of interesting discussions, some good ownership through the HQs, and a workshop which really produced some output. Something that shall regulate the water resources by establishing an effective mechanism and in the end really have an impact on water resource management problems. Something that the People of Kenya can actually benefit from.

Things you do after the workshop: folding some flipchart paper into baskets so that people own up the rubbish they’ve produced during those 3 days…

A workshop that drained my brain of any blogging attempts in the past few days and left me wondering about the following observations instead:

1. These traffic police officers at your favourite road block – does the GoK provide them with batteries that power their torches during the nights?
(Kwasababu: ~makes me think the first minibus / lorry stopped has to “add value” to these people in public service.)

2. Important people in Kenya have a very…parrrrticulaaaar way of getting their messages across. The most notable rhetoric instruments of course are the implementation of pauses as well as something I call “left out words”.

speaker: “So….this is whereby we are looking FOOOOHHA (for)………..??
audience: “…..”
speaker: “right..”

Judging from the way these people speak, one can instantly assume where they normally spent their sunday mornings.

3. Toooooooothpicks! The toothpick alone deserves it’s own post. There’s NO meal in Kenya without toothpicks. No nyama choma feast without a package of toothpicks.
Ok, sure, some vegetaboool eaters are players and chewing on a toothpick all day long to maybe pretend a higher meat consumption or can’t afford any chewing gums. In fact, the other day I saw a smoker lighting his cigarette and the next thing he did with the half burned match was to stick it in his mouth.
So, next time you’re @ Java House – look out for any toothpicks on the taboool. Are there any? JH isn’t yet kawaida

4. I pity those office folks – especially those in their red number plated cars – who have to sit in meetings and workshops most of the time. Those who hardly ever get out of their office world and sometimes even lose any sense for the wananchi out there. Workshops are exhausting. I am tired. Haiiiaaaaa……

5. Life is beautiful. @Everyone: have a nice weekend!