Flooding and sludge issues – at home and abroad

Learning can be a two-way street: Rémi Kaupp, WaterAid’s Programme Officer – Urban, travelled with Yorkshire Water and AECOM engineers to Bangladesh, and discovered that the UK and Bangladesh have more water challenges in common than you might expect.


9 Apr 2015

Let’s open with a quick quiz. On my recent trip to Bangladesh, who did I hear saying the following?

- “It's hard to adapt our ageing sanitation infrastructure for flooding, which is occurring more often due to climate change."
- "Changing people's behaviour is tricky, like how not to put everything down the drain, such as wipes, fat or trash, as it complicates treatment afterwards."
- “We have the equipment to manage sludge, but often face challenges due to breakdowns and failures – it’s a challenging environment they have to operate in."
- "We have tried to deploy water meters, but we face resistance in some areas."
- "Working with others can be challenging, due to differing drivers, legislation and regulation."

Was it the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority? Was it an engineer from WaterAid Bangladesh? Was it a local NGO?

All good guesses, but actually these were words of engineers from Yorkshire Water and AECOM, realising just how many challenges are shared by water industry companies around the world.

Engineers in Bangladesh

Flood risk and wastewater engineers Catherine Minor, Emma Hughes and Jonathan Piatka won the Society of Public Heath Engineers Award 2014 by proposing innovative solutions to the challenge set by WaterAid – ‘How can we adapt decentralised wastewater treatment systems, like the ones we are pioneering in Bangladesh, to flood risk?’ As part of the award, the group visited projects of WaterAid Bangladesh to see how their suggestions could work in practice and to exchange ideas with local engineers.

The British engineers realised that theory is often very different from reality, especially when perceptions of situations vary so much – as exemplified by the rebuttal from local authorities that “there is no flooding here”. We learned quickly that only ‘waterlogging’ exists, where water rises about two feet above road level, lasting for a few hours – what most British people would call ‘flooding’.

Water logging on the main road, there is no prevention method in place for this problem to date, Paikgacha Paurasava, Bangladesh, 2014.
Waterlogging on the main road in Paikgacha Paurasava, Bangladesh, Photo: WaterAid/ Habibul Haque.

In addition to being a wonderful opportunity to marvel at piping joints, types of gravels in wetlands or the colour of the effluent (what else would you expect from exchanges between engineers?), the visit revealed something perhaps surprising – that solutions used in sanitation projects in Bangladesh could be very relevant to challenges faced in the UK.

Of course, there is huge variation in the level of some of these shared challenges:

  • Climate change and flooding (or waterlogging) are much more pressing issues in Bangladesh.
  • The need for behaviour change isn’t limited to what is put in the drains, but extends on a much deeper level to the importance of personal hygiene and toilet construction, a lack of which has massive health implications.
  • Cities in developing countries need to bring drinking water and sanitation to millions of unserved residents in difficult conditions, and they often lack the resources – money, or government support – to address the issue.

But these extreme challenges have encouraged resourcefulness in WaterAid’s local partners in Bangladesh, who are constantly innovating. We saw constructed wetlands that treat wastewater without a smell, sludge-drying beds to make pit toilet contents more usable, and a co-composting plant where faecal sludge, poultry litter and organic waste can be mixed to produce fertiliser. The water industry is constantly developing, and we can learn a lot from these solutions.

The long road to safe sanitation in the UK

In the UK, we are still learning. The UK has achieved ‘universal access’ to water and toilets, which we are mapping in our Big History Project, but it has been a long road. Just 25 years ago, much of the British east coast was dumping its wastewater into the North Sea, seriously damaging water quality in wetlands and rivers. The implementation of the 1991 European directive on urban wastewater management addressed this issue, leading to dramatic improvements (not that everything is perfect yet, of course).

But the problem of waste treatment has not disappeared – treating the liquid part of wastewater has become easier, but the sludge portion is still tricky, especially if you want to reuse the precious nutrients it contains, such as phosphorous and nitrogen. We also have to plan for the future and the increased risks of flooding, made more complex by our combined sewers.

As the trip to Bangladesh revealed, we can learn a lot from the situation in countries like Bangladesh and use that learning to address some of our issues back home. This was a wonderful example of a symbiotic professional relationship, and I hope we can arrange more exchanges to learn from each other.

Rémi Kaupp is WaterAid’s Programme Officer, specialising in urban sanitation. He tweets as @RemKau and you can read more of his blog posts here.

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