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Juliana Gil: 00:25

Hello, this is How to Save Humanity in 17 Goals, a podcast brought to you by Nature Careers in partnership with Nature Food. I am Juliana Gil, chief editor of Nature Food. This is the series where we meet the scientists working towards the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the United Nations and world leaders in 2015.

Since then, in a huge global effort, thousands of researchers have been using those targets to tackle the biggest problems that the planet faces today. In episode six, we’re looking at Sustainable Development Goal number six: how to achieve availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. And we meet a civil engineer who’s using citizen science to get there.

Laure Sione: 01:16

My name is Dr Laure Sione. So I’m, I’m actually French. I moved to the UK when I was a child.

And I always wanted to go to Imperial College. So when I finished my A-levels, that’s exactly what I did. I joined the civil engineering department in 2009. And I did my MEng there. I met Mike Templeton, who’s the head of my research group.

And then after my MEng, I went on to pursue a PhD, still in the civil engineering department. My PhD was more focused on water resources, looking at intermittent supplies in developing countries specifically. And I worked exclusively in Nepal for that one.

And then when I graduated from my PhD, I moved on to working more in the sanitation fields, which is what I do now as a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial.

So my research is exclusively focused on SDG number six, on clean water and sanitation for all. But we really try to keep in mind all of the other goals as well, because what some people don’t realize is that they’re all really closely interlinked, actually.

Sanitation plays a huge role in gender equality, in good health and well being. And in lots of other aspects as well.

So we try to develop sanitation solutions that are more holistic in nature, to make sure that, you know, everybody really does their best to work together to achieve all of the goals, not just one of the goals

Laure Sione: 03:00

We tend to think of things like absolute availability. So in very arid areas of the world, you know, people really struggle to get water in a manner that is easy for them. So in enough quantities and water that is safe to drink. You know, that is a real challenge.

But in other parts of the world, actually, you know, there is a lot of water, but it’s mismanaged. And so that results in the same problems. People don’t have the water when they would like it. It’s not delivered in a timely manner. It’s not available in ample quantities. And a lot of the time it is contaminated.

So there are a lot of improvements that can be made in those types of scenarios as well which we tend not to look at too much because we think “You know, they have water. They don’t need us as much.”

But actually, no that can make people’s lives very, very difficult. And people do tend to panic a little bit and that changes their behaviours. And typically what we see is it puts even more strain on the water resources in that region.

So Kathmandu is, actually, you know, situated in Nepal, which you know, when we think of Nepal we think of these beautiful snow-capped mountains and so immediately without knowing much about it you can tell this is a water-rich country.

And the problem in Kathmandu is not the lack of water. It’s really more of a lack of management, and a lack of investment in infrastructure over the years, which means that large pockets of Kathmandu doesn’t receive water.

And the people who do receive the water. they’ll receive it intermittently. My project in Kathmandu, was using citizen science, and a custom made app to record data on intermittent water supplies there.

And how that works is I built an app that gives them, the people, a tool to record water patterns, as they see it in their homes.

And then I go out in the field and I teach them how to use this app. And you know, at the same time, it’s also an opportunity for researchers to, you know, get to know the region a bit better, get to know the context on the ground a bit better, and also share some of our, some of our knowledge, right? I think that’s really important.

And research is the exchange of knowledge. And you know, actually, when you get there, you find that people already kind of have an inkling that there’s something wrong with the water that they’re drinking. And they’re actually quite happy to learn more about it.

In my case, to incite people to use the app, I also distributed water quality test kits to some people in the project, and taught them how to use it.

And that meant that they could then test their own water supply to determine whether or not it was contaminated and safe enough to drink.

So that was a huge eye opener, because what we saw from that was that there was a discrepancy between what the water utility thought it was supplying, and what the people on the other end were actually receiving.

And that’s due to a whole host of factors. You know, number one of it, which is, since the pipes were laid down, the city has increased in population. And so obviously, not everyone will receive water anymore.

So the infrastructure hasn’t kept up with the booming, booming population. And then number two, you know, in developing countries, some people are too poor to afford to be hooked up to the water supply.

So that leads to a lot of illegal tapping. And what happens there is these people tap close to the reservoir typically, so that they’re sure they will get water, and pump all the water out at that point. And then that means that further down, the water isn’t delivered as it was intended to.

So really, it’s a whole mix of circumstances that comes together. But the result is that people are quite unhappy, they’re quite stressed to not be receiving water.

And so you do get this kind of hoarding response, where, you know, they’re so scared that they are going to run out of the water, that the minute they can get water, they just pump as much as they can, into their own reservoirs to save up for when they know there’s not going to be any water left.

And that puts tremendous stress on the pipes, tremendous stress on management, because there’s not very much you can do to stop people doing that

Laure Sione: 07:47

Poor sanitation really leads to a huge disease burden. You know, the most prevalent one that you will see is diseases that cause diarrhoea. And diarrhoea causes an incredible number of child deaths every year, every hour, actually, that we could very, very quickly reduce if only we had proper sanitation.

And, you know, unfortunately, when people are sick, the whole nation kind of collapses, you know. So when kids are sick, they can’t go to school, the mother typically has to look after them. And if the child misses school for a long enough period of time, then usually they might drop out and obviously that reduces their, their future in the job search.

So it will affect women and children disproportionately to men, unfortunately. So sanitation has really led to other goals in this sustainable development goals, new especially the problem of gender equality and things like that.

So a lot of Sub Saharan Africa, you know, doesn’t have sewage sanitation. So, the two main practices are open defecation or using pit latrines.

And pit latrines are essentially you know, deep holes in the ground. Some of them can be what we call improved, which means that the pits are lined, so that, you know when they get filled with excrement, the excrement stays in the pit. And some of them unfortunately are unimproved. So they really are just holes in the ground.

And what happens there is that, you know, the urine and the faeces is actually going to leach into the surrounding area. And that can be quite dangerous, quite detrimental to the ecosystem.

Not to mention if the pit is dug too close to the water table. Then, you know, there’s a high risk of contamination of that water which is then probably drunk by the same adjacent population and very quickly will lead to sickness.

So you know, that’s that it’s one aspect of it. And then the other aspect of it is that pits do fill up. And they will need emptying at some point or other. And that is very costly. And you know, people don’t necessarily have the means to pay for that on a regular basis.

So they might resort to trying to pay less and get a company that’s less reputable. Or sometimes, you know, on the black market altogether. And then the pit-emptiers emptying yours won’t have the correct kit. And they’ll have to, you know, essentially get their hands dirty. And that can be very dangerous for their health as well.

So, you know, you’ve got on the one side, you’ve got consumer problems, which are, you know, the pit gets full. And that’s obviously very unpleasant and can spread diseases in the household.

But then on the other side, you’ve got the problem with the pit-emptying industry, which is that, you know, pit-emptying workers do put themselves at risk. And, you know, it’s a terrible job to have, but unfortunately, somebody’s got to do it.

So, you know, part of the work that we do as well is looking to develop the technologies for pit emptying to make it better, more efficient and safer for the pit-emptiers.

A Tiger Worm toilet is similar to pit latrine, in that it also uses a pit. But within that pit, there are bedding layers. And within those bedding layers, we put tiger worms, which are a special type of worms that compost the faeces very efficiently into very fine powder that we call vermicompost, that is odourless and is much smaller in volume than then faeces.

And so that has multiple perks. The first one is that because they degrade the feces so quickly, there’s no smell. And by extension, because there’s no smell, that means the flies are not attracted. So the experience of using the toilet is much nicer for the users.

And then, from a more scientific perspective, the worms degrade the faeces so quickly, that the pit doesn’t fill up as quickly as a traditional pit latrine. So that means that it will not overflow and you don’t need to empty it as often. So the trials are still ongoing for that. But you know, we’ve installed Tiger Worm toilets years and years ago, and they still don’t need emptying and the worm population is thriving.

So there’s a there’s still work to be done to optimize the design of the tiger toilet, at least at a kind of more basic level, you know. Providing people with a hygienic place to do their business is already a huge improvement over a traditional pit latrine, you know.

So the work in Sierra Leone was actually led by Oxfam, who, who rolled out some Tiger Worm toilets there. And you know, we learned some really good lessons from that.

There’s a few barriers. The first barrier that comes to mind is definitely the issue of having worms in a toilet. A lot of people struggle with that, you know, it’s like, it’s a gross thing, and they don’t want to think about it.

But I think the benefits of the Tiger Worm toilet quickly take over. And people do get accustomed to that. So if you can get them past that first kind of hurdle, then you’re okay.

The second issue when working with toilets, in general, honestly, not just with Tiger Worm toilets is the gender issue because women and men don’t use the toilet in the same way. And they don’t use it for the same purposes either.

So in the same way, you know, obviously, like women, menstruate and need a private place to attend to that. But from a kind of more social perspective, you know, women in developing countries in particular, also tend to use toilets for social purposes. You know, just like here, actually, you know, you get to three women off to the bathroom for a little chat. While it’s the same thing over there.

So we do once in a while get feedback about toilets in general being important socially. And we have to take that into account.

For example, in India, we installed these beautiful toilets in people’s homes. And then we found out that the women were actually quite unhappy and didn’t want to use the toilet. They kept going to use the communal toilet. And the reason behind that was that, you know, we had taken away their excuse to have a good little chat and meet their social circle.

So that was really an unforeseen challenge and just goes to show that you really have to make sure you have a cross-disciplinary team when you work on sanitation challenges because, you know, it’s not just an issue of hygiene and health, it’s also a social issue and an a gender issue and all sorts of things come up that you wouldn’t think of as an engineer.

Yeah, something else that I’ve been looking at is, again, not just applicable to toilets, but very important for toilets is catering to different people with different abilities, you know. So a lot of the time toilets in developing countries don’t take into account wheelchair users or old people, or very small children. But all of these people still use the toilet. So it’s important to design it in such a way that, you know, they can also go to the bathroom in a dignified manner.

So part of my job is designing new Tiger Worm toilets. You know, they keep kind of the essential parts of the current designs, which was having bedding for the worms.

But then I’m looking at catering to different problems that were that, you know, haven’t been solved by the traditional Tiger Worm toilets. Adapting the tiger warm toilet to different areas so that we can deploy it around the world. So something I’m looking at is changing the design so that it’s overground to be able to accommodate for rocky terrain where we wouldn’t be able to dig any pits.

Another one of the designs is looking at adapting the pits so that it doesn’t flood when it rains too much to make sure that the worm population is preserved. Otherwise, we’ll have to refeed the pits.

And that can be quite costly buying new worms. And also sometimes a little bit tricky, because you might have to fly them in from a different country. And, you know, while we’re working on the projects, or while the charities are there, then obviously we can take care of it.

But the idea is really that these Tiger Worm toilets be self sustainable, and fully manageable by the household. And the third change is adapting the toilet altogether for urban areas where there’s, you know, there’s not a lot of space, it’s usually crowded areas, you know, something like a slum perhaps.

And in that case, you want a toilet that can be used by the whole, perhaps block. And it’ll be extremely, extremely useful in these cases. Because, you know, when you’ve got a lot of people using the latrine, it fills up 10 times as fast. And then it needs to be emptied. So the tiger worm toilet would do a really nice job of kind of reducing that effect.

Yeah, when you think that, according to UNICEF, about 2000 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhoeal disease, and that installing sustainable clean toilets could eradicate that, it’s a no-brainer to invest in sanitation and sanitation research. And hopefully, the tigerworm technology will be able to contribute to that significantly.

I do love my job. I think that, you know, when you work in sanitation, or in water, it has to be really a vocation.

And it’s a little bit like being a doctor. You know, I do it because I want to help people, I like to see people being happy and living healthy lives. It’s really important to me.

And you know, as an engineer, a lot of the time a lot of the work we do is you don’t you don’t see the results, but in health and sanitation and, and water, you see those results very, very clearly.

Yeah, I think when I started my PhD journey, you know, I was talking to my supervisor one day, and I told him, “You know, I’m doing this because I really want to help people, but maybe I missed my vocation, I should have been a doctor instead.”

And I remember very clearly that he replied that, you know, “As a doctor, you can only help one person at a time. But as an engineer working in sanitation, or in water, you’re gonna help hundreds of 1000s at a time with only one successful project.”

And that really, really stuck with me. So, you know, those are the words I live by really, and I remind myself of that every day.

And you know, the image that these toilets that we’re currently building in Rwanda are gonna help, you know, maybe not hundreds of thousands, but maybe one village at a time. That’s good enough for me. I’ll live with that. I think that’s what keeps me going.

Juliana Gil: 19:49

Thanks for listening to this series, How to Save Humanity in 17 Goals.

Join us again next time when we look at Sustainable Development Goal number seven: affordable and clean energy for all See you then.

Sponsor message: 20:20

This Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland, where research is addressing some of the world’s most challenging and complex problems. Take your research further at UQ. Visit

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