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Sanitation gets social

Teams of social scientists and engineers are studying different areas of Latin America in an EU-funded project to discover how political processes, community engagement and appropriate technologies combine to deliver clean water and sanitation. The aim is to use the research to help deliver clean water and sanitation to local communities currently without adequate access.
Mosaic art by children from low-income communities (favelas) in Recife, Brazil. The text above reads: “Who uses this place, also takes care of it"

Latin America is blessed with plentiful supplies of fresh water, yet large swathes of the population have no access to drinking water or adequate sanitation.

Officially, around 7% of the region’s population have no access to clean water. But recent studies suggest these figures do not reflect reality on the ground where as many as six in every 10 people are affected by poor quality services: high prices, intermittent supply, low pressure and leakages. Moreover, about 20% of Latin Americans do not enjoy decent sanitation, rising to 40% in rural areas.

“In a world where we know the fundamental value of basic sanitation and clean water … we are duty bound to do whatever we can to address this situation,” asserts José Esteban Castro from Newcastle University in the UK. He coordinates DESAFIO, an EU-funded project investigating water and sanitation services across Latin America.

Social studies

Among the project’s multidisciplinary studies is an examination of the Integrated Rural Sanitation System (SISAR) in place in the Brazilian state of Ceará. Researchers want to find out more about the political and institutional circumstances enabling Ceará to implement this highly innovative, not-for-profit model of community-oriented water supply and sanitation.

Working in a poor neighbourhood of the city of Recife, DESAFIO partners are also looking at two different approaches for water supply and sanitation. The first, ‘condominial sanitation’, designs sewerage for blocks of houses rather than city-wide, while ‘integrated sanitation’ brings together a wide range of water, health and environmental services. Both approaches place great emphasis on community participation to ensure success and sustainability.

Case studies are also underway in rural communities. In Colombia, local women and men have been taught to maintain and run wastewater and water supply systems themselves. In Argentina, a school-based science project is teaching children how to measure levels of arsenic contamination in water. The enthusiastic children are passing on their knowledge to parents and neighbours, helping to raise awareness on how to detect and deal with health-threatening water contamination.

Technology plus…

Technology also plays a central role. DESAFIO engineers are involved in the development of a water treatment system that uses solar power and filters instead of expensive chemicals such as chlorine to provide safe water to a very poor rural community in the state of Minas Gerais.

Local stakeholders are actively engaged throughout the whole process, from the planning to the validation of the chosen solutions. Another sanitation infrastructure in a rural town of Ceará will bring the price of clean water down from US$6.5 per cubic metre to an affordable US$1, says Castro.

“This is an incredibly exciting project because we are taking such a holistic perspective,” he adds. “Yes, we need to develop suitable technological solutions for specific contexts, but technology does nothing without supportive economic, socio-political and cultural processes and policies. Good sanitation needs democratic participation and community empowerment.

“Our findings could radically improve access to clean water and sanitation across Latin America, and also reveal new models for including local communities in decisions about public works in Europe, especially when vulnerable populations are involved.”

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