Installers, Onsite Users Need a Boost to Improve Sanitation Outlook

Health and humanitarian organizations recognize a need for public subsidies, approval of treatment technologies and a fresh installer workforce to modernize wastewater treatment

A report released recently by the World Health Organization and UNICEF concludes what we in the onsite installing industry have known, and shouted from the rooftops, for years: that oversight and investment in decentralized wastewater infrastructure is woefully inadequate.

Despite some improvements in regulation and funding for wastewater treatment upgrades, countries across the globe need to do better to promote human health and a cleaner environment, according to the State of the World’s Sanitation

The report indeed finds the problems are significant in crowded third-world countries and those with emerging economies. But it also recognizes the U.S. needs to make major strides in adapting to new technologies and that federal, state and local governments should invest in improvements to private onsite systems. 

As we’ve been stressing for years, the report states that too many U.S. states have inadequate rules requiring things like system inspections and periodic maintenance and pumping. It’s an affirmation that we all need to roll up our sleeves and get to work with health department officials and legislators to promote industry advances.

Haphazard inspections

“Upgrades are only required if inspections are conducted and systems prove to be in failure, and inspections only happen in a haphazard way, at time of sale or when a neighbor complains, typically,” the report states. “It is a question as to whether there should be a universal federal approach to rules and regulations, setting minimum guidelines, and allowing states to adapt to those minimums as it regards what system are approved for use, how often maintenance is performed, and when systems are inspected at interval.”

And quite significantly, the report says municipal sewers and decentralized systems should be put on equal footing, and that governments need to realize much future growth in sanitation will be in onsite systems. This means backing our industry’s network of service providers and equipment manufacturers to ensure success.

“Strategies and plans should explicitly recognize the utility of both sewered and nonsewered sanitation (including decentralized systems) and appreciate the importance of building and supporting the entire sanitation chains of both,” the report states. “The role of informal sanitation service providers should be acknowledged, recognizing that their experience is a valuable resource … Government policy must enable and encourage more private sector producers, suppliers and services to increase competition, lower costs, increase innovation and allow the availability of a diverse range of products in the marketplace.”

Bleak worldview

Let’s step back for a moment and take a global look at the sanitation picture. We are lucky to live and work in North America, where sanitation conditions are advanced compared to much of the world. The report says 2 billion people in the world lack a basic level of sanitation. Among other advances, the WHO would like to eliminate open defecation and see all people receive basic sanitation by 2030. 

That’s a tall order. According to the report, 19% of schools worldwide were estimated to have no sanitation service in 2019. Some 367 million children use pits, bucket latrines or have no sanitation facilities at all. In 28 countries, 10% of healthcare facilities in 2019 had no sanitation service. 

These figures and the images conjured by them put our problems in the U.S. and Canada into perspective. We have a great advantage over much of the world, but that is not universal across our land, either. In poorer areas across America, people are still utilizing inadequate treatment systems that include direct effluent discharge into streams, ditches and backyards. In every region a good percentage of septic systems are failing and need replacement.

It’s true that our regulations have not kept pace with an aging infrastructure and constant development. Millions of onsite systems are certainly contaminating groundwater at this very moment. At the same time, owners of these systems balk at the concept of replacing them or plain don’t have the money to do so. The WHO and UNICEF report recognizes the issues and says government needs to make adjustments or the problem will get worse.

“Government seeking to support private sector investment in sanitation must develop a robust regulatory environment, enabling private sector to generate reliable and sufficient revenue streams to cover their investments and operations,” the report state. 

So governments must play a more aggressive role in encouraging inspections and upgrading systems. But at the same time, these bodies must seek creative ways to use grants, loans and other financial vehicles to support users who face large bills for upgrades. 

Help wanted

The report also recognizes another major hurdle if we are to improve the sanitation infrastructure: how to put enough people to work in the wastewater industry. As we know in the installing community, the industry is aging. Many of our best frontline workers are nearing retirement, and installers are constantly telling me they can’t find good workers to fill the ranks. Without well-trained and reliable crews, this important work will come to a standstill. 

Worker conditions are more dangerous in other countries, we know. 

“Many more sanitation workers are needed,” the report stated in a worldview that is mimicked here. “Yet sanitation workers, who are often poorly paid and stigmatized, are repeatedly exposed to health risks. Working conditions need to be progressively formalized to safeguard health and safety.”

We are better off in the U.S. and Canada, where worksite safety is mandated and wages and benefits for our crews are clearly better than in other parts of the world. But there is still much room for improvement. And one way to achieve those advances is through consumer education about the importance of properly functioning wastewater systems and placing a higher value on safe water supplies and a cleaner environment.

Helping at home

The report states that the “sanitation economy” represents a $62 billion market opportunity in one country alone, India, in 2021. “The sanitation economy can only thrive with development of a supportive regulatory environment that encourages initiative,” the report concludes. 

As to the report, I recall the old mantra of political activists: “Think globally, act locally.” 

We can do our part to improve the global outlook by working to fix problems right here at home. That means lobbying with our local, state and federal legislators for commonsense regulations that would lead to infrastructure improvements. It means encouraging health departments to approve new technologies to offer to your customers. And, most importantly, it means educating the public at every turn about the importance of septic system maintenance and upgrades. 


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