Appropriate Technology for Sanitation in Mali
A hundred years ago, privy shafts (outhouses), cesspools, and private wells were the norm, even in the largest cities. It was not until late in the 19th century that concern about road drainage prompted the construction of drainage systems and only as an afterthought did the builders realize that they could add sewage to the drainage pipes and solve another urban problem.
As is still the case in some rural areas, city dwellers in the 1800s built wells and privy vaults on their city lots. This arrangement worked well when the city population was small and the lots large, but as the city grew and lots were subdivided, more and more people came to live and dispose of their wastes in the same land area. With time, and a burgeoning population, the impact of human waste disposal on drinking water supplies grew serious and then grave. It was precisely such an impact that led to the great 1854 cholera epidemic in London, England, during which physician John Snow for the first time made the connection between leaking cesspools and human disease.
Throughout the developed world, safe drinking water and effective disposal of human sewage are taken for granted. This is not the case through much of the developing world, however, where millions of people live in overcrowded conditions with primitive sanitation and water supply arrangements.
Such conditions exist all over the world. One example can be found in Mali, a country in northwestern Africa. Like many other developing nations, Mali lacks basic environmental infrastructure and services. Although now a city of over a million people, Mali’s largest center, Bamako, still uses physical systems built in colonial times intended to serve only a tenth of its current population.
Less than a quarter of Mali’s households are connected to a public water supply, and less than 2% of the population are served by a sewage system. Instead, over 98% of households discharge their wastes into private facilities. Less than a third of these are septic systems offering any level of sewage treatment; most, including those in schools and other educational institutions, are simply pits dug in the soil. In many areas, not even cesspools are used; people simply dig shallow trenches and dispose of feces in them, creating a breeding ground for insects, parasites, and bacteria. A number of human health problems in Mali directly result from these poor disposal practices, including dysentery, typhoid, malaria, hepatitis, schistosomiasis (bilharzia, a parasitic disease caused by water-borne flatworms), and guinea-worm (dracunculiasis, another parasitic infection caused by a long, thin worm).
Clearly, this situation is not sustainable, yet the solutions for it are not immediately clear. Western-style remedies such as centralized sewerage and water supplies are very expensive and Mali lacks the necessary technical expertise to build, operate, and maintain them. What is needed is sanitation technology that is appropriate for the Mali culture. A key challenge in solving Mali’s sanitation problems is therefore to determine what, for Mali, is an “appropriate technology.” And, of course, for a low-income country like Mali, “appropriate” also means “affordable.”
It is unrealistic to expect that Mali’s government, lacking funds and technical expertise, and with many other pressing problems, will be able to solve the problem on behalf of its citizens. Instead, the solution will have to involve individual households and a low-tech, low-cost approach.
Cheick Amala Tabouré, a resident of Bamako, has been a leader in community initiatives targeted at resolving Mali’s private sanitation problems. But even he, a native of Mali, has been surprised by some findings. A survey of local residents, for instance, revealed that, if constructed, private septic tanks would likely be used by 15 to 60 persons, far more than even Tabouré had expected. Based on community input, Tabouré designed a low-cost, high-capacity household septic tank system, created a loan fund to help arrange affordable financing, and trained unemployed local youth in construction methods. His design consists of a four-meter-deep pit with a porous base and sides covered with concrete slabs. An adjacent “man-hole” allows for incoming water to be filtered, to prevent stones, wood, and other debris from entering the tank. Tabouré’s design can be built at half the cost and to higher standards than the model previously promoted by the Mali government. Loan-repayment schedules are tailored to the needs and income of the particular household.
A new septic tank design is not enough, however. There is also a need to persuade people that the tanks are desirable. To do this, Tabouré persuaded some of his neighbors to try a demonstration project involving 30 households. The purpose of the project was to show citizens how the system would work, and how much it would cost. Participating homeowners then became important ambassadors for Tabouré in promoting the project elsewhere in Bamako. Another key component of his strategy was to form an advisory committee of elders, who were instrumental in creating a foundation of trust for the project in the community. Finally, recognizing the important link between sanitation and public health, Tabouré has employed a female nurse to promote household hygiene, safe-birthing techniques, mother-child health, and septic tank upkeep.
Tabouré’s project has had a dramatic impact on the appearance of and health conditions in participating neighborhoods. More than 100,000 people have now been directly affected by improved septic systems Other countries and aid agencies are now asking for his cooperation in extending the project to other areas of Mali and neighboring countries. The key to his success has been selection of an “appropriate” affordable, simple, easily constructed technology developed with, not imposed on, the local community.
While projects like Cheick Tabouré’s have had an undeniable impact on local conditions, their influence is small and local, and change has been very slow in occurring. Perhaps a national strategy, funded by international aid agencies, would be preferable to these local efforts.
The advantage of community-based approaches like Tabouré’s is that they ask residents what they think and how they do things, and base decisions and technologies on the wishes and priorities of the community. As a result, a well-run project can fundamentally change the way the community thinks about managing water and sewage, and thus increase the likelihood that structures and practices will be maintained over the long term. Tabouré has created a sense of community “buy-in” ownership of the shared problems of waste management and public health protection.
To paraphrase an old saying, Cheick Tabouré is not giving his community solutions, but rather teaching them how to solve their problems themselves. In addition to creating a technology based on the local culture, he is teaching citizens how to build and maintain the system, how to lend and repay money, and how to communicate and use effective health practices. His community is immeasurably stronger because of learning these new skills.
Although a centralized water and sewer system would be ideal, it is simply unrealistic in the short term. Neither local residents nor the government has the necessary capital to support such a costly initiative. As a result, community-based initiatives like Tabouré’s are the only viable option at present.
Is Too Slow
Although effective, Tabouré’s project has touched only a fraction of the people affected by water and sanitation problems, even within Mali. Many more people have died because of poor conditions. A centralized water and sewerage system will be expensive but could be funded by international aid efforts and built within a relatively short time, and it would touch many more people than local community-based projects.
Governments act on behalf of the common good. In this case, the Mali government has a responsibility to take national action, at whatever cost, to protect and improve public health. By delegating the task of managing human wastes to local communities, the national government has abdicated its implicit responsibility in this area.
There is no question that Cheick Tabouré’s project has built important local skills in his community. However, it could also be argued that if the federal government launched a national water and sanitation strategy, the result would be improved skills at a national and governance level. There are therefore significant capacity-building implications of a national, as opposed to community-based, sanitation strategy.
Mali does not appear to have legislation specifically geared to environmental management or human health. Mali’s Constitution (available online at http://confinder.richmond.edu/Mali.html) sets out the powers of the federal government and the president. Title I (The Rights and Duties of Human Dignity) contains details of human rights, including:
· Article 15: Every person has a right to a healthy environment. The protection and defense of the environment and the promotion of the quality of life is a duty of everyone and of the State.
· Article 16: In the case of a reported national disaster, every citizen has a duty to give aid according to the conditions defined by law.
· Article 17: Education, instruction, training, employment, housing, leisure, health, and social protection constitute some of the recognized rights.
· Article 18: Every citizen has a right to education.
· Public education is mandatory, free, and nonreligious.
· Chapter 7 (Water: Hydrologic Cycle and Human Use), Section 7.2 (“The Hydrologic Cycle,” pages 181–189), and Section 7.3 (“Water: A Resource to Manage, a Threat to Control,” pages 189–195), discuss the hydrologic cycle and how human activities affect it.
· Chapter 15 (Environmental Hazards and Human Health), Section 15.1 (“Links Between Human Health and the Environment,” pages 408–417) discusses several classes of hazards to human health, including the lack of access to necessary resources such as clean water and nourishing food.
· Chapter 17 (Water: Pollution and Its Prevention) provides an overview of the many factors that influence water quality, including sewage pollution. Section 17.3 (“Sewage Management and Treatment,” pages 479–486) describes the challenges of managing human sewage and provides a survey of the conventional and alternative technologies used to treat it.
This site tells the classic story of how in 1854 physician John Snow identified the link between leaking cesspools and cholera in London’s St. James’s Parish. Dr. Snow is widely credited with the first clear proof that drinking water contamination is directly linked to poor sanitation.
This is a useful page of resources covering most aspects of Mali’s laws and policies.
This page describes Cheick Tabouré’s project in detail.
This page provides a report on private sanitation initiatives in Southern Morocco, under similar cultural and climatic stresses as experienced in Mali.
This article describes a national plan for water and sanitation in Eritrea, with emphasis on the cultural setting and need for appropriate technology.
This World Bank PDF document presents a plan for management of local water and sanitation problems in the Middle East and North Africa.
This site provides an overview of water conditions in the Senegal River Basin, including Mali.
This PDF document contains information on UNICEF projects throughout the world, including sanitation projects directed at controlling guinea worm in Mali.
News and information, advice, research, and training on low-cost water supply and sanitation in developing countries.
“Appropriate technology” is a term used to describe technological solutions that are easily understood, constructed, maintained, and operated by people in the local community. The Institute for Appropriate Technology maintains this site with links to numerous documents and development organizations.
This page covers a wide range of alternative building technologies, including a variety of alternatives to the conventional toilet.
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