Photograph by Roberto Schmidt, AFP, Getty Images
Published March 22, 2010
Two billion tons of human and animal waste and industrial pollution are dumped into waterways every day around the world, according to reports released today in Nairobi, Kenya, for the 17th annual World Water Day—a day the United Nations (UN) dedicates to raising awareness of the water quantity and quality challenges facing the planet.
“Wastewater—you’re literally swimming in it,” said David Osborn, the primary study author of the UN Environment Program’s (UNEP) report, Sick Water. Osborn and his UNEP colleagues single out sewage and animal waste as the biggest source of global water pollution, flushing pathogens and an overdose of nutrients and sediments into rivers and lakes, and out to sea.
There are few places where this is more clear than in Nairobi’s slums. On a rainy day in Kibera—one of the world’s largest unofficial settlements, or shantytowns—you are ankle deep in a soupy, earthy smelling mess of red mud, human waste, and plastic shreds.
Kibera is a sea of corrugated tin over a maze of earthen walls and dark narrow paths along the eastern bank of the Ngong River, a tributary of the Nairobi River. It is home to anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million people—likely more than a fourth of Nairobi’s population—and is crammed into just 620 acres (250 hectares) on the outskirts of the city.
Residents of Kibera, many day laborers who have moved from rural areas to find work in the city, lack toilets and a direct connection to drinking water.
As you squish your way through the Kibera village known as Soweto East, you see children dropping their trousers next to makeshift sewage canals that lead to the Ngong, as well as a few very primitive, and sometimes overflowing, outhouses.
Another common practice in Kibera is known as the flying toilet—doing your business in a plastic bag and throwing it on the ground.
But the 70,000 or so residents of Soweto East have something else—cement, ceramic, and clean toilets and showers. Or at least they have a handful of them to share.
Starting in 2003, UN Habitat has worked with the Soweto East community to build seven “water kiosks,” where residents, who on average make less than U.S. $1 a day, pay about $0.05 to use the bathroom and shower, or $0.07 for 5 gallons (20 liters) of drinking water.
Nicholas Odero, who is a member of one of the sanitation facility management committees in Kibera, says there are about 500 people a day that use the new structure near his home, adding that it benefits many children in the village.
Children are often the most vulnerable to waterborne diseases associated with sewage contamination. According to UN statistics, a child dies from waterborne diseases, primarily diarrhea, every 20 seconds. That means nearly 1.5 million children under the age of five die each year because of water pollution and a lack of sanitation infrastructure.
In Soweto East, each kiosk has four to six toilets and a couple of showers. According to Daniel Adom, chief technical adviser of UN Habitat’s Water for African Cities Program, each facility receives about 2,000 visitors a day, and generates about $600 a month. The money is used for kiosk operations, maintenance, and security, utility bills, and housing cooperatives.
Adom says that while it's slowgoing, the project is a success based on the number of toilet visitors, and the fact that kiosks provide 21,000 gallons (80,000 liters) a year of drinking water—which was once illegally siphoned from public pipes.
One more kiosk is slated for construction before the UN hands over the project, in May 2010, to the Kenyan government, according to Adom. Kenyan officials said Monday, at a World Water Day event at UNEP headquarters, that they will continue to construct water kiosks and install water tanks in the slums.
Local vs. Global
While Kibera is an extreme example, lack of wastewater treatment is a global issue. Nearly 80 percent of sewage around the globe is flushed, untreated, directly into lakes, rivers, and oceans, according to the second report released today—Clearing the Waters, a joint effort by UNEP and the California-based Pacific Institute, which specializes in global water issues.
To add to the mix, the world’s urban slum population is estimated at 1.8 billion and is on the rise.
Beyond better water quality regulation and enforcement, emphasis needs to be placed on education and prevention, said Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick.
The kiosks in Soweto East are a starting point, Gleick said. They brought in a new road, now lined with prime commercial real estate for food stalls, beauty shops, and other income-generating clapboard and trailer-based businesses. And most importantly, the road can be used for transporting clean water and sanitation supplies even deeper into the slum.
Gleick says he now thinks it is time for the local government to step up—and that access to water is a human right and it is the government’s responsibility to provide it.
Not in My Backyard
Untreated wastewater might be considered an issue for the developing world, but the developed world, including the U.S., is not immune, said Nancy Ross, communications director for the Pacific Institute.
While modern treatment facilities are generally able to remove pathogens from human waste, there is a whole new suite of chemicals to consider. Traces of antidepressants, birth control, illegal drugs, sunscreen, and insect repellent are just some of the compounds often impervious to treatment. They have all been found in U.S. drinking supplies.
Kibera used to be Maasai grazing land, teeming with wildlife, according to the UN. And now it is a textbook example of how the world’s poor are often left without basic health services. It is also a key example of how the rivers, streams, wetlands, and coastal areas of poor regions are often left as a depository for human waste and other pollutants associated with cramped city living.
“If you know what’s going on [in the developing world], you can’t in good faith not be on board [to find a solution],” Ross said.
You thought Yosemite's Dawn Wall looked tough? See photos of 10 of the world's hardest, most influential free climbing achievements.
Loggerhead sea turtles can return to the beach where they were born using the Earth's magnetic field as a guide, a new study says.
Some homeowners are seeing high heating and electric bills also, even though gas prices have fallen to their lowest point in years.
The Future of Food
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.