Wastewater efforts elevated on national stage

Published 3:56 pm Wednesday, May 29, 2024

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Wastewater disposal in Lowndes County gained national attention earlier this month. But unlike earlier notice, which highlighted the glaring inadequacies of area septic systems, the recognition with offerings of praise and requests for shared knowledge and collaboration with an organization orchestrating solutions to the decades-old sanitation problems in “the 45.”

Sherry Bradley, executive director for the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program (BBUWP), traveled to Washington D.C. May 7 – 9 to serve on a panel at the inaugural U.S. WASH Convening. She took the stage as one of several locally-led initiative leaders who are providing solutions to rural communities’ WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) crisis.

Kabir Thatte, vice president of policy and external relations for DigDeep, explained how Bradley’s participation in the discussion elevated efforts in Lowndes County, sharing the knowledge needed for sustainable solutions.

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“Sherry’s powerful words center the personal, human experience of the water and sanitation crisis, reminding national policymakers that real families are impacted daily,” Thatte said. “National leaders need to see that communities like Lowndes County have been innovating solutions for decades and we need to elevate locally-led knowledge. Uplifting these experiences is crucial for building understanding and urgency around finding solutions.”

According to Bradley, Lowndes County’s story resonated with attendees who were anxious to learn from what is working in Black Belt communities.

“They wanted to know about the [BBUWP] program,” Bradley said. “They wanted to know how it was going. So, I told them how we got funding, how many installs we have done, the problems we’re having and how we’ve overcome some of the problems.”

The groundbreaking event, held at the Hilton Washington DC National Mall the Wharf, was a gathering of over 200 attendees from more than 100 organizations aimed at discussing the challenges, opportunities and solutions to closing the clean water and sanitation access gap across America. Vessel, a collective of national WASH organizations, hosted the event which featured workshops, panels and regional breakout sessions where others like Bradley shared their experiences, learned from experts in the field and developed strategies for improving clean water and sanitation access for all communities.

“The inaugural U.S. WASH Convening provided a rare and valuable opportunity for local leaders and advocates from communities facing water and sanitation access challenges to come together, share learnings, and realize they are not alone in this fight,” Thatte said. “Participating leaders were able to trade insights on what approaches have moved the needle in their regions, brainstorm new strategies, and begin building coalitions to push for change at the state and national levels. These are not isolated problems, and the solutions will require groups joining forces.”

In sharing BBUWP successes, Bradley said her goal was to show the resilience of Lowndes County residents and the progress possible when people work together.

“I wanted people to know that Lowndes County can be represented in a positive light,” Bradley said. “I’m not willing to get up and show only sewage on the ground but no solution. We have a solution and that’s what I want people to know.

“Lowndes County is not a third-world country. Lowndes County is just a community that needs some assistance. I hate that people across the United States think Lowndes County is a down-and-out county. It’s beautiful countryside and good people. They are the humblest people and that’s what I’m trying to convey.”

On the heels of the conference, Bradley prepares for a trip to South Africa. She will view sanitation solution efforts there as part of a collaboration with the South African Water Research Commission and BBUWP.

The aim, Bradley said, is to discover innovative solutions and share what is already working in Lowndes County.

“It’s unfortunate that the world only knows Alabama from the UN sanction perspective, but this is our chance to show our solutions to what we have come to find is a problem of monumental proportions in the southern region of Africa,” Bradley said.