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Unpacking narratives towards a framework for waste water management

Technology exists for a different waste water management framework, but have we done enough to engender acceptance of these solutions? And are we listening to the voices of the people who need them?

Dar es Salaam is the former capital of Tanzania and home to around five million people. At least 80 per cent of these people reside in informal settlements. These spaces spring up in response to urbanization and affordable housing shortages. They are characterized by impermanent buildings and – often – overcrowding. A resultant issue is the lack of sewer networks or other means of waste water management.

Across the world, centralized sewage has been the mainstream solution to the waste water a city’s inhabitants inevitably produce, but informal settlements’ infrastructure is often overstretched or completely non-existent.

Without these centralized systems, waste water isn’t just a smelly nuisance but a public health concern, leading to cholera and diarrheal disease outbreaks. And it’s an area that has been keeping Dr Dickson Wilson Lwetoijera up at night. Lwetoijera is a vector biologist and research scientist, with additional qualifications in applied zoology and biotechnology. He has been working on methods for controlling malaria and on the environmental elements of health management at the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania, including water and sanitation.

A tech-led solution

The ubiquity of these sanitation concerns means that all around the world top scientists and engineers are developing alternatives to the central water-borne sewage system. One such option is decentralized wastewater treatment systems (DEWATS) – smaller plants, often sunk beneath ground and relatively close to the point of collection that collect, store and treat waste water.

BORDA Africa – a division of Bremen Overseas Research & Development Association – is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that specializes in decentralized sanitation. They have been constructing DEWATS plants on the continent as a means to addressing the issue. And the technology works. However, implementation has not been without challenges, including community acceptance of these alternative systems and governmental support thereof.

And it is at this pivotal point, of acceptance of this solution, that Dr Lwetoijera saw an opportunity for an interdisciplinary study that could bring safer water systems to Dar es Salaam and beyond. He is the principle investigator for a LIRA-funded research project titled “Integrating sustainable water and sanitation solutions to create safer, more inclusive and climate resilient cities”.

Team field visit to Kigamboni DEWATS plant.

A completed and commissioned DEWATS plant.

A community-led resolution

“The DEWATS plants,” explains Lwetoijera, “are a proven technology that can serve communities of 30 000 people or 3000 houses. The question is, however, whether the people who will be utilizing these plants, benefitting from them, are understanding what they are. That question of acceptability was not originally part of the BORDA implementation project.”

He continues, “we have this proven technology for managing waste water in Africa, in urban settings, but we don’t know if people are going to accept the technology. We need to understand the social constructs which are hindering their understanding or that might make them reject the technology.”

The power of stories

Lwetoijera believes that stories are powerful. A significant part of the research is about exploring the stories of how people view sanitation, what their concerns are, and the myths they believe about having a DEWATS system on their doorstep. Typical concerns include that the DEWATS plants will be smelly, or bring problems to an area.

Working with an academic in South Africa – where there is a pilot DEWATS system in place – they are collecting the successful stories with regard to this technology to share with other communities in Dar es Salaam. The goal is to show the journey to success, and how this technology is helping to manage waste water.

“It cannot be an uncritical or single-sided narrative. We also want to hear the other stories, those that we need to hear in terms of what to work on, to make sure that we improve the implementation of our project. It comes from both sides, the experts and the communities, the people themselves. It has to be a holistic approach, otherwise you may end up designing something that people reject, and then you are worse off than before.”

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Looping in stakeholders

In addition to bringing in community voices, Lwetoijera’s team has been mapping the stakeholder landscape, including: academics, private and public sector, civil society, and launching a stakeholder engagement programme. Their governmental reach is wide, bringing together representatives from several ministries and water utilities.

“In Tanzania, we don’t have a sanitation policy”, he says, explaining that the issue is being reformed and reorganized within government structures. This gap creates an opportunity for researchers to contribute directly and meaningfully to the creation of such a policy. Their initial engagements also offer the researchers some critical insight into the power dynamics at play between the different authorities and their differing priorities.

“This project has the potential to produce guidelines for a policy that incorporates DEWATS. It’s new tech, with the potential to serve a large part of the community. We are strongly involving the government sector from the Ministry of Water to the Ministry of Education, including water utility companies, to make sure they are aware of the option from the beginning. Also making them aware of the social aspect of the technology in terms of what people think.”

It is their ultimate wish that one of the actionable outputs of the research is a framework for that policy, and one that will be functional, sustainable and context-specific.

A shift in responsibility

As a public health management pundit, Lwetoijera believes that we need a proactive response to water and sanitation – an area that is usually reactive by nature. “Coming from a public health discipline,” he says, “I always want to be prepared before a problem starts.  Across Tanzania, there is no programme to tell people how to use water efficiently. We don’t have the infrastructure we need, and we’re not educating people.”

This relates directly to the achievability of SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, as well as GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-being. “What is the role of the people in waste management?” he asks. “If you speak to people, they think it is the responsibility of the government. Historically, though, management of waste water used to be at the household level. Until the point that people are accountable and responsible for the waste they produce, we won’t make a leap in sanitation development.”

This project is being supported by the LIRA 2030 Africa programme.

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