As a child, I would complain from the backseat of the car whenever we passed by Westmont Drive, plugging my nose and asking my mother to please drive a little faster. The smell that emanated from the circular, stark-looking building on the corner made me cringe, and I didn’t care to stay there any longer than necessary. It wasn’t until a few years later that I thought to ask my parents why the unpleasant smell wafted there in the first place, but when I asked, it made so much sense. The city of Charlotte, North Carolina was taking care of our wastewater – because our sewage had to go somewhere – and, because they were dealing with it, it wasn’t my responsibility. I unplugged my nose and took a second look at the building, thinking again to myself, they were dealing with it so I didn’t have to.

Wastewater is essentially unusable water, water that you or I could not drink because its quality has been adversely affected by human activities. So, if we cannot drink it, if we don’t like the smell of it, why talk about it?  

This is why: on March 22, we commemorate World Water Day, the day designated by the United Nations as a day dedicated to focusing attention to the importance of freshwater. This year’s World Water Day theme is wastewater, drawing attention to the risks and ill effects that plague the international community when it comes to the management of wastewater – including grey water, and particularly black water and fecal sludge. Globally, over 80% of the wastewater generated by society flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused. The World Health Organization – known as the WHO – reports that 1.8 billion people use a source of drinking water contaminated with feces, which in turn means that 1.8 billion people are risking cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio every time they drink water. Unsafe water and poor sanitation, says the WHO, cause around 842,000 deaths each year.   

To counter these conditions, global actors are striving to promote the use of toilets in communities that might not otherwise have sanitation facilities; of equal importance, however, have been advancements in the global conversation around fecal sludge management. The international development community is working to ensure that fecal sludge is managed and treated appropriately, instead of being dumped into waterways –as is often the case. Taking these efforts a step further, several actors are starting conversations around not just treating waste but recycling and reusing it, transitioning the attitude around fecal sludge and wastewater from one of “waste to wealth. ” At Habitat for Humanity, we applaud this revolutionary way of thinking, and, while it may be far in the future that this kind of practice becomes the norm, it is worth reflection that wastewater might not have to be wasted, and that one day it could be safely and carefully reused for the good of communities. 

Aligning with these efforts taking place around the world, Habitat for Humanity is joining with communities to improve wastewater management and treatment. Habitat for Humanity works under the recognition that a house is more than four walls and a roof, and that a healthy, safe, adequate home means a home whose members are not exposed to untreated wastewater and can rely on safe sources for drinking water. Habitat for Humanity Philippines, for example, is implementing a project to provide creative wastewater management solutions in Baseco, a compound with 10,000 slum dwellers where 80% of the residents lack access to decent sanitation facilities. Through the Baseco Sanitation Program, Habitat Philippines designs and constructs sanitation units comprised of a transportable septic tank with piping, a toilet, and an enclosure, providing both sanitation facilities and a drainage system to then deal with the wastewater. These facilities are easily adaptable and can be moved as residents change locations. Community members work alongside Habitat Philippines, constructing units, digging drainage, and participating in soft programs such as water, sanitation, and hygiene education and training to accompany the construction. Habitat Philippines believes that access to safe water and appropriate sanitation solutions with effective wastewater treatment are essential needs in every community, and they operate with holistic interventions to adequately manage wastewater that could otherwise threaten families’ health and safety.

I have always taken for granted the safe treatment of wastewater in my community. Others were dealing with it so I didn’t have to. In other communities, however, this is not the case. World Water Day is an opportunity to recognize the hard work of those who are engaged in securing access to safe, adequate wastewater management and treatment solutions for all. It is also a day for our own work to continue; for those that are vulnerable to health risks from wastewater, we must speak up and act for change.

Solid Ground is doing just that. By promoting the upgrading of slums around the world, the campaign is ensuring that, with increased security of tenure, people can have access to necessary basic services including proper sanitation and wastewater treatment options. Solid Ground recognizes that quite often the biggest challenge for sanitation and wastewater treatment is in fact land and that improving water related systems means allocating land for basic wastewater treatment infrastructure. The campaign uses the collective voice of our global network to stand up for much needed change, working with communities to ensure access to safe and affordable options. We must all deal with this, so that one day, down the road, other generations won’t have to.