Wastewater program launches international collaboration

Published 6:36 pm Monday, July 1, 2024

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Lowndes County’s decades-old wastewater crisis is returning to center stage on the world platform for the second time since 2017. But recent attention is positive, illuminating recent efforts at solving sewage disposal in the area and joining forces with worldwide partners determined to bring access to sanitation to all people.

Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program (BBUWP) Executive Director Sherry Bradley traveled to South Africa recently to meet with leaders of the South African Water Research Commission (SAWRC) Witsand ECO Housing Beneficiary Support Organization (WEBSO). From June 2 – 10, she conducted site visits and roundtable discussions, forming the foundation for a collaboration which will benefit people living across the globe from one another who are facing the same wastewater disposal challenges.

Dr. Mothusi Guy is a Hale County native living in South Africa. He has witnessed firsthand the challenges Black Belt area residents and South Africans face with disposing of sewage and serves as committee chair for the Witsand iWASHWell Management Committee, working to bring solutions to the people of Cape Town and to bridge the gap between those living in poverty without access to sanitation and the technology available to bring services to every citizen.

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“In Africa, in the urban areas, you can have anywhere between 10 and 20 families on one toilet,” Guy said. “It’s a scale you would struggle to understand without actually seeing it.”

Lowndes County gained international attention after United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alson, reported findings from his December 2017 visit to the area. South Africans, suffering from their own sewage disposal crisis, learned of the decades-old problem in Lowndes County, feeling a kinship in both the problem and the availability of solutions.

Bradley and WEBSCO leaders, learning of the common thread they shared, began to discuss what BBUWP is doing to aid Alabama’s Black Belt residents. Bradley heard about innovative solutions being designed in South Africa and traveled there to learn more.

“The solution is there,” Bradley said. “The solution to waste management, I’ve seen it and I know for a fact it will work here in Alabama.”

Many Lowndes County residents needing help with wastewater disposal live in areas not suited for a traditional septic system, Bradley explained. In some communities, families live close together or on property where the slope of the land does not permit proper drainage.

The solution Bradley discovered is called a closed loop system, one where there is no discharge to the environment at all.

“The system keeps recycling water,” Guy said. “There is no discharge. One system we saw has had the same water in use since 2022 and it is crystal clean.”

The best part, Guy said, is that people using the systems are part of the solution because they control what enters the system. By making sure only specific materials enter the system, users ensure it remains healthy for long term use.

The two organizations, BBUWP and WEBSCO, have entered into a collaboration to share technology and work toward solutions benefiting Africans and Alabamians. And, through the partnership, Guy said he hopes both areas can benefit and bring political pressure to bear for local solutions.

“As part of the partnership with the BBUWP as the sister organization with WEBSO and the iWASHWell(tm) Management Committee (iMANCO); we are documenting the findings of Ms. Bradley’s visit which we hope can be used in both countries to help unblock and remove barriers that allow families to live in inhumane WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) conditions,” Guy said. “The book ‘Waste” [by Catherine Flowers], UN sanctions and US Department of Justice intervention were required in Alabama to highlight the problem and bring political pressure to the local authorities. But Ms. Bradley, who worked in the Alabama government for 40 years, had already begun to address these issues while a government executive and as such understands both sides of the challenge.”